MILLIONS of pounds have been snatched from the wallets of farm workers after a ‘wage council’ was axed, the government has admitted.
And the losers will include more than 5,600 staff working on the land in the North-East and North Yorkshire, figures show.
Last year, it was announced the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) will disappear to remove what ministers called “outdated and bureaucratic farm-labour restrictions”.
The AWB has protected farm workers from exploitation since 1948, the last surviving wages council after others were scrapped in the early 1990s.
Now the government has acknowledged that it expects a staggering £235.7m will be transferred from workers to farm owners, over ten years.
The sum - for lost wages - was revealed in an ‘impact assessment’, sneaked out by the department for the environment, food and rural affairs (Defra), just before Christmas.
It is deeply embarrassing for ministers, who had insisted the plan to axe the AWB was not a “plot to drive down wages”.
Mary Creagh, Labour’s environment spokeswoman, said the assessment confirmed the move would be another hit for lowly-paid agricultural workers, fruit pickers and food packers.
And she warned: “This will lead to lower wages for farm workers and take £240m out of village high streets over ten years.
“David Cameron’s out of touch government has delivered a bitter blow to the rural economy and to thousands of low-paid farm workers who will be worried about their pay falling.”
Defra’s figures reveal that the biggest concentration of farm workers in the region is in the parliamentary constituency of Thirsk and Malton, in North Yorkshire (1,513).
There are also large numbers in Foreign Secretary William Hague’s seat of Richmond (1,287) and in Skipton and Ripon (1,058).
Further north, there are sizeable numbers in the Bishop Auckland constituency (308) and in North West Durham (232) and Sedgefield (175).
The decision to end the AWB – from October this year – will cut administrative costs by just £500,000 over the decade, the assessment said.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said, last year: “Over the border in Scotland, rural workers will still have their board to protect them.
“Why does this government not similarly value the rural workers of England and Wales?”
However, David Heath, the Liberal Democrat farming minister, insisted the end of the AWB would make it easier for staff to receive annual salaries, rather than hourly wages.
He said: “Scrapping these outdated and bureaucratic rules will significantly reduce burdens to farmers, while keeping workers extremely well protected."