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Examination of Witnesses

Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:00 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Diana Holland and Jyoti Fernandes gave evidence.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton 3:24 pm, 13th February 2020

We will now hear oral evidence from Unite and the Landworkers’ Alliance. We have until 4 pm. Welcome. Would you introduce yourselves?

Diana Holland:

I am Diana Holland, Unite’s assistant general secretary, with responsibility for food, drink and agriculture. We are the only union that represents agricultural workers directly, as the historical Agricultural Workers Union is part of Unite.

Jyoti Fernandes:

I am Jyoti Fernandes. I am a farmer in Dorset and president of the Landworkers’ Alliance, which is a union for small and family farms, mixed farms, market gardeners and community supported farms.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

Thank you. The acoustics in the room are poor, so it would be helpful if you raised your voice.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip, Government Whip

Q Diana Holland, in your submission you say that you think the Bill should have measures about pay conditions for agricultural workers. What do you think those measures should be, and why would the Bill, as drafted, be the most appropriate vehicle for them?

Diana Holland:

The measures we were thinking about have previously been raised in a number of submissions: first, looking at the impact of the Bill on workers in agriculture, and secondly, looking specifically at the reinstatement of the protections of the Agricultural Wages Board, which currently exists, in some form, in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but not in England.

Why do we think that is important? We do not think that agricultural workers are like every other worker; we think that they are different and their experiences are different. As a union with an incredibly long history of representing them, we speak from experience. They have a special place in the union, and we think that they should have a special place in the Agriculture Bill, too.

Right this moment, the director of labour market enforcement has a session going on to look specifically at the problems of wage theft and employment law non-compliance in agriculture. The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority has had a licensing system in agriculture for 15 years, but it is still recognised as an area with a high level of exploitation and threat of exploitation. That is the background to this.

When the Agricultural Wages Board covered everywhere, there was a level of protection and information that is no longer available to us. Increasingly, you will find that statistics relating to agriculture have little stars by them and a note at the bottom saying, “The sample figures are too small.” That does not mean that there are no other workers to record; it means that they are not hitting any of the official ways of recording people. Increasingly, we find that people are employed in different ways, meaning that they are not recognised in the official statistics in the way they used to be. The Agricultural Wages Board provided a way of ensuring that all that information came to the forefront.

Finally, we have always argued that safe, healthy food and high-quality jobs go hand in hand. There is lots of evidence that where workers are badly treated, there is also an undercutting of food quality standards across the board. We see this as part of ensuring and protecting food standards, food security, supply chains and all the other issues in the Bill. They all have workers associated with them, and we think they should be included and recognised.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Good afternoon to you both. We have heard from a lot of witnesses, but this is possibly the first time we have actually heard about the people who work on the land, which is why it is very important that you are here. How could the things that you are looking for be incorporated into the Bill?

Diana Holland:

There are a couple of ways. One would obviously be an additional clause that covered the impact on workers of those developments in agriculture and how the protections that exist in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland could also be applied to agricultural workers in England. On top of that, in the rules for agri-food imports, where we will be looking at future developments, we are extremely concerned, first, that there is a lessening of all standards and, secondly, that where food is concerned, while there may be some recognition of protections for food standards, and even of animal welfare, workers may be left out. It should all go together—food, environment, labour protections for everybody.

As I said, when we wrote to our rural and agricultural representatives to ask for examples of issues—I am aware it is anecdotal, but it is important—we found that there are still pressures to hide problems that agricultural workers face, because in small isolated communities personal relationships often extend over other areas and the employer may have other roles in the community that people feel could have an impact on their lives. There is pressure all the time not to speak out about problems that arise. Your accommodation is often tied to your job in some shape or form, whether that is on the horticultural or agricultural side of things. It is those kinds of pressures and those sorts of experiences that we think need to be included; otherwise there is a real danger that, as well as being wrong for the people concerned, they will undermine some of the other things that the Bill is trying to achieve.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q Will you explain some of the reasons why you feel that agriculture is different from other sectors? When the Agricultural Wages Board was abolished in England, the coalition Government claimed that the minimum wage would pick up the issues. What has the experience been in England since, and what is the difference in the other countries where similar arrangements have persisted?

Diana Holland:

First, there is a bit of a dearth of information. We have been constantly asking for that to be specifically looked at. We have done some research ourselves, however. Not long after the board was abolished, within the first year or two years, we surveyed all our members who had been covered by it. We were really shocked, although perhaps not surprised, to find that a huge proportion had had no pay rise since the Agricultural Wages Board had been abolished. Those who had had a pay rise, the vast majority, had had no say or discussion over that pay rise—it had just been introduced.

The employers we have talked to in the sector have said that they would find it helpful to have a process that could be relied on and about which everybody has said, “We’ve come to a conclusion,” rather than the pressure of having to negotiate individually or to find that the pressure is on and to think about what is fair in the circumstances. There is also exploitation in the sector—I will not run away from that—but I am not saying that every single person is deliberately trying to exploit. Sometimes there are other pressures.

There was also some survey work done in 2017 that compared Wales with England. There was a suggestion that protections in Wales meant that there was a 6% higher rate of pay overall. As I say, again, these are often small samples and figures, and we need to look more. We have had a chance, however, to talk to the employers in Wales. Some of the evidence from the employer representatives has made us concerned that there are employers in the sector—who previously followed a system that has been abolished—who are not aware of their responsibilities and who saw the national minimum wage as a voluntary mechanism rather than an absolute requirement. That might seem impossible, but it is a reality that came out in the discussions and the evidence. We feel that where the Bill talks about public money for public goods, that should also include ensuring that the workers are treated decently.

The minimum wage does not cover all the additional things. Career progression was provided, relating it to the jobs and roles that people have, allowances for having a dog, overtime and sick pay rates. All those details were included, but they are not in the national minimum wage, which does not take into account the particular considerations that the Agricultural Wages Board does. But that does exist elsewhere. That has been a massive loss to those people, without any demonstrable gain to anybody.

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q What is your assessment of the way in which the Bill and its conditions on unfair trading practices will work with existing legislation to protect farmers and those at the lower end of the supply chain? How will those instruments work together?

Diana Holland:

Can you explain what you mean by that? Do you mean in terms of the workforce?

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

In terms of farmers being at one end of the supply chain, dealing with much larger retailers and much longer, complex supply chains. Do you think the Bill gives them any further protection than they already have under the Groceries Code Adjudicator or the grocery supply code of practice? Do you think that the Bill will work well with existing policy measures?

Diana Holland:

First of all, we really welcome the recognition that protection needs to be built in to the supply chain. However, we are concerned that there is not sufficient detail, and how it will work in practice needs to be fleshed out in more detail. In our experience, holding different stages in the supply chain to account is a very difficult thing to enforce. Often, when workers are at the end of that supply chain, they are the last people to be considered. Something that may have been very well intentioned at one end of that supply chain pushes enormous pressures at the other. If there are savings to be made, it would be on the amounts of money that are paid.

We want protections built in, so that part of enforcement along the supply chain would be to check that that is not happening, and that it is not a method of passing on pressures to cut standards and people’s pay. It is really important that it is in there, but we feel that there should be more detail. I have not identified any contradictions with other legislation, but when it comes to the detail, that would need to be taken into account.

Photo of Fay Alicia Jones Fay Alicia Jones Conservative, Brecon and Radnorshire

Q Do you think the Bill gives more protection to farmers or farming co-operatives than existing legislation such as the Groceries Code Adjudicator?

Jyoti Fernandes:

No, I do not think it gives more protection to farmers. This is a slightly different part of the Bill, and I had prepared to talk about it later. It needs to change from powers to duties, to assure farmers that the money will come through to support farmer incomes. We greatly agree with the thrust of the Bill, but it is quite scary that even though great programmes are being rolled out, such as the environmental land management schemes, there is no assurance that that will continue and that Government will give the budget to those programmes to help supplement farmer incomes in future. That is scary and it is worrying for our food supply. It would mean a lot if the Bill’s wording was changed from “may” to “must” give money, to ensure that we will be able to rely on some income to supplement producing the food that everybody needs.

Photo of Abena Oppong-Asare Abena Oppong-Asare Labour, Erith and Thamesmead

Q My question is targeted at Jyoti. Do you as a smallholder famer feel that the Bill is wide enough to support those with small farms, compared with those with bigger farms?

Jyoti Fernandes:

Our union represents all scales of farms: we are all agroecological farms, family farms and mixed farms. As smallholder farmers, this is something we are particularly interested in. We also represent a lot of horticulturalists, who grow fruit and veg, and it is possible to grow a lot of fruit and veg on a very small acreage.

To date, we have been really disadvantaged by the payment schemes that are out there. There is a 5-hectare threshold, which cuts people off from getting payments if they have less than 5 hectares. If someone has a large landholding that is used extensively for beef, they can get quite a lot of subsidy, but if they have less than 5 hectares and use it for intensive market gardening—providing the fresh fruit and veg that we need—they get nothing. That means that 85% of our membership have never received subsidies before. That puts us at a serious disadvantage, even though we as small farms provide a huge amount of public goods—we directly provide fresh food, the sorts of fresh fruit and veg that we need for healthier diets—to communities. In the transition around climate change, we need to eat more fruit and veg and less meat. That is the sort of thing that we can be in a position to do.

There is nothing in the Bill that specifically directs towards helping smaller farms, though the focus on public goods would enable us to do that, if we get the right schemes in place. We are working with DEFRA to try to ensure that the schemes it rolls out will benefit horticulture and fruit and veg. One amendment that we suggested was about affordable access to food. We would like to see some acknowledgment that agriculture is about producing food and that everyone needs food. While food itself might be a business like any other—bought, sold and traded—access to food is not. Having good, nutritious food available to everyone is something we strongly believe in.

If that was in the Bill, a lot of our farms, which provide a social outcome directly to consumers at an affordable price—from fresh fruit and veg, to milk and pasture-fed, free-range meat—could be enabled to develop those marketing mechanisms. That would help us out quite a lot. That means community supported agriculture, direct supply chain stuff and doorstep delivery of unpasteurised, raw, wholesome milk, or whatever it may be. That would enable those small businesses that work directly for our food supply in our local communities to get support. It would also support community farms that integrate social measures. They might, for example, have green gyms, work with horticultural therapy or bring people form disadvantaged backgrounds into the countryside to learn where their food comes from and join in that process. Food has a much wider remit than just being something that farmers gain an income from. A lot of us produce food because we believe it is important to our society.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q This is for Diana. You mentioned this when you spoke about wages, but could you explain a bit more about why you think agricultural workers need a different protection regime than workers in other sectors?

Diana Holland:

Obviously, all workers deserve overall protection. Many workers have additional forms of collective bargaining or representation through different structures. Agricultural workers in some areas are an example of an extremely fragmented and isolated group of workers; in other areas, there are big concentrations for small periods of time. The work is seasonal and there is insecurity.

The issues they have experienced over many years are well-documented. I think that singles them out to require more than the basic national minimum wage, working time regulations etc., to take account of the fact that people may have accommodation tied to their role, which could be their permanent home or temporary accommodation for a seasonal role, or that transport could be provided, which, in extreme circumstances, is used to keep people on site beyond the time that they should be there or is denied to them. Those kinds of things mean that there is intense pressure.

Photo of Danny Kruger Danny Kruger Conservative, Devizes

Q You mean they are particularly vulnerable?

Diana Holland:

They are particularly vulnerable to abuse. Therefore, it continues to be recognised that they need to be identified within labour market protection. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, they have additional protections to those that apply in England. We think that needs to be put right.

While, of course, at the time, in 2010, a number of things identified as red tape, burdens and so on were got rid of, there was general shock throughout the sector—across the board—that it could have been done like that to the Agricultural Wages Board, with a two-week consultation period, given that it had existed all that time and had all that experience. It needs to be put right.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

Q Diana, you talked very clearly about the effect of the removal of the Agricultural Wages Board and its replacement with the dysfunctional—in the context of agricultural workers—minimum wage. Are the three devolved Administrations broadly similar? Do you suggest that including in the Bill an instrument to replicate the provision of the Agricultural Wages Board would be relatively straightforward for Ministers to do?

Diana Holland:

I would say so, yes. It has been done recently; obviously, the original legislation covered England and Wales, so extricating Wales and doing that separately has been done in recent times. My answer would be yes.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Agriculture and Rural Affairs)

Q Jyoti, I was interested to note that you represent large horticultural producers as well. There is nothing in the Bill to give a positive voice to industry about the availability of seasonal labour from abroad. Do you see that as a challenge? Would you have that amended?

Jyoti Fernandes:

In many ways, because our union works with workers across Europe, we think it is important that some workers can come over to other places, as long as they are respected and get decent wages and decent labour conditions, to work on larger agricultural units. By and large, we represent people who live in the UK who want to be able to produce and to farm and work on other landholdings as well. We do feel that more encouragement and support for the sector, so there did not need to be poor working conditions, there were decent wages, and fewer pesticides and fungicides were used, would encourage British workers to work on farms. We also feel that would encourage loads of independent smallholder market gardens, which can be quite intensive and could provide really good employment —and enjoyment in that employment. We would like to see a lot more encouragement for independent horticulture and British workers.

Photo of Robert Goodwill Robert Goodwill Conservative, Scarborough and Whitby

Q Key to the structure of agriculture in many parts of the country is the traditional family farm. In many cases, family members who perhaps have other jobs will come and work for free at weekends. Spouses are often unwaged. As a farmer’s son myself, I did not get any wages at all until I was 28; I just got some money out of my mum’s purse if I needed it. You suggest reinstating the Agricultural Wages Board. How would that work with the traditional family farm structure? I can see difficulties. Some of these farms are very marginal indeed and can survive only because of people working either unwaged or for low wages in the hope of inheriting the family business.

Diana Holland:

When it existed, it was not any different, and it was fine in the sense that it operated. Whether everybody got what they were entitled to is another question; perhaps you are suggesting they did not. Certainly, we have worrying evidence of individuals being paid not in money but through provision of accommodation and so on. We got evidence—it was a terrible story—that an individual woman had worked for a long time on a farm and in all that time had never received anything, apart from the odd bit of what might be considered pocket money. She was extremely worried when the employer was in danger of stepping down from his responsibilities that nothing—no rights—would exist for her. I think that is evidence of the nature of the problems that workers in the sector face. I do not think it is a reason for not trying to do something about it. I think it is important that people receive recompense for what they are doing, and that needs to take account of the nature of agriculture. The Agricultural Wages Board does that by bringing together workers’ representatives, farmers’ and employers’ representatives and independent experts in a tripartite way, to make sure that that properly reflects what is really going on. The issues you raise would be discussed at the table, alongside the pressures and issues that I am raising and the official evidence gathered by the experts.

Photo of Theo Clarke Theo Clarke Conservative, Stafford

Q I want to pick up the point about agricultural workers. My constituency in Stafford has a lot of rural areas. Farmers have mentioned to me that the pilot scheme is great, and it has now been extended to 10,000. Are your members saying that we need to have an increase in seasonal workers, because there will be fruit left unpicked later in the year if more do not come in? What are your views on that?

Jyoti Fernandes:

We believe in smaller units, where you do not need to bring in loads of seasonal workers. With smaller-scale market gardens and horticultural units that pay well, you can attract British workers and will not need to bring in so many people from other countries in order to pick those crops. We see a flourishing, home-grown fruit industry, where you can bring in more people to do that kind of work.

That needs investment, access to land, grants for people to get into that kind of small-scale market gardening and horticultural units and to plant fruit trees into mixed farms, and training. It needs routes to market, which means processing facilities, so that you can make apple juices and that type of thing, and so that you can store those things, add value to them and get better value back on them. It needs distribution facilities within local market economies. That might be market facilities in town, online distribution services or co-operatives that try to process those fruits and get them to market, so that you get a good price for them. It needs all those sorts of investment in our national infrastructure in fruit, fruit processing and distribution.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

Q I would like to pursue the labour supply issues, because my understanding is that there are very large numbers of people working in something like the poultry sector who are not originally from the UK. Is there anything you think the Bill should look at to make sure that some of those issues are addressed—I am looking particularly at Diana on that one—and am I right to be concerned about it?

Diana Holland:

You are definitely right to be concerned about it. The important thing is that, where decent standards are protected and reinstated, they should apply to everybody. The original seasonal agricultural workers scheme was part of an educational opportunity for students. We worked very hard and gave evidence over many years to make sure that that was what it was. It should not be about workers coming in from other countries—because the sector cannot get people in this country to work for the terms and conditions and pay that it is offering—and then treating them extremely badly when they are here. As you say, it will not provide the security, the quality needed or the stability in the sector. It is very important. We want opportunities that are properly worked out. How fantastic it would be if we could make this sector one that people want to work in and one that they look for, rather than thinking it is somewhere they will be exploited.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Labour, Cambridge

There is a danger that, if we do not address those labour supply issues, the industry will struggle, and we will then inevitably be back to importing food from outside again.

Diana Holland:

Exactly.

Jyoti Fernandes:

I was going to bring up something really important to this whole scenario, which is the impact of trade. Basically, we are never going to get the conditions here where small and family farms can survive as independent businesses, or keep decent work opportunities on larger units, if you are undercut by cheaper produce from elsewhere. It just is not a possibility. The global marketplace can source cheap labour—slave labour—from all over the planet, and really exploit places with really low conditions. It is not just the trade standards: it is also the competition from very large multinational corporations in other countries—the huge farms in California or South America, which have loads of exploited labour, much higher levels of pesticide usage and multinational advertising campaigns that will blow any of our homegrown industries out of the water, unless we can get some control over that and have something in the Bill that allows for tariffs that stop that imported stuff, and standards and rules that do not allow our homegrown industries to be undercut.

This is a very exciting Agriculture Bill. Everything about it that is moving towards environmentally friendly farming, agroecological farming and all of that is tremendously exciting. We could have one of the best homegrown food supplies in Europe, and we could really pioneer something very special and really support small and family farms, independent businesses and workers being treated decently, but not if we are undercut by cheap imports. That must be looked at very carefully, otherwise all the good work and the good will of this Bill will be undone.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

If there are no more questions, I thank the witnesses on behalf of the Committee.