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23 March 2007

Minister Steps Into Pay Row - Press & Journal

Scotland's agricultural wages board (SAWB) has been ordered to look again at its controversial decision to scrap age-related pay bands for farm staff.

by Joe Watson, Press & Journal

Farming Minister Ross Finnie has made the request to chairman John Menzies to reconvene the board and consider further evidence.

The highly unusual intervention by the minister - revealed in a letter to Banff and Buchan MSP Stewart Stevenson - comes five months after the board provoked fury by deciding that all farm staff should be paid the same minimum wage.

The board's stance has been roundly condemned as it ignored the 21 representations made to it, all of which criticised it for contemplating moves to scrap the age band structure that has been retained in the national minimum wage and which has resulted in farm apprentices and other young employees getting the same minimum pay rates as senior staff.

Mr Finnie makes clear his concerns at the implications of the board's decision in the letter to Mr Stevenson.

The minister said: "Given the widespread concern about the SAWB's decision, the possible implications for the industry and the apparent anomaly between the SAWB's Wages Order (which has no age-related differentials) and the National Minimum Wage Regulations (which retain said differentials) I have asked Mr Menzies to reconvene his board within the near future to revisit this issue, by seeking further evidence.

"You will also wish to know that the SAWB has the powers to make a new wages order should it decide to do so."

Farmers have repeatedly said that the decision effectively stops them employing young people of whom they say neither have the experience nor the qualifications or licences needed to operate farm equipment, all of which would justify a higher wage.

NFU Scotland's legal and technical committee chairman Jamie Smart welcomed the minister's intervention over what he termed a "huge mistake" by the board.

He added: "We will be seeking clarity on exactly what new information the chairman believes is required to demonstrate that age-related pay bands should be reinstated, as we firmly believe they should be."

Mr Stevenson said the minister's instruction for the board to reconvene was welcome.

"Anything which presents a barrier to the entry or employment of young people in agriculture must be addressed and I trust having identified this as a problem, the board will now take action to address this issue," the MSP said.

Any about-turn by the board could prove embarrassing. It has throughout said that it had no choice in the matter and that it had been legally obliged to remove the age-related minimum pay rates after the recent imposition of employment equality regulations.

Mr Menzies also told the agricultural press that the board had not been given enough evidence by the farming industry to retain the differentials.

The decision to scrap the pay bands was made on the casting vote of Mr Menzies after legal advice from the Scottish Executive.

The new rates, introduced on January 1, mean all farm staff getting at least £5.35 an hour, and £5.70 for those employed after the qualifying period. The reality is that experienced farmworkers get substantially more than the minimum rates.

The board's decision handed 16 and 17-year-olds a minimum £2.05 an hour increase, while those aged 18 got at least an extra 90p per hour.

Other business sectors are, however, bound by the national minimum wage legislation which gives 16-year-olds just £3.30 an hour.

The scrapping of the pay bands had been welcomed by the Transport and General Workers' Union which represents farm staff.

It was yesterday unable to comment on Mr Finnie's order.

to read the original story click on Press & Journal

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