Workers gathered outside parliament yesterday, Wednesday, to protest at the government’s Public Bodies Bill.
The bill will give ministers unprecedented powers to abolish public bodies they declare irrelevant or too expensive—but which provide vital services for ordinary people.
One of the so-called “quangos” to be abolished is the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB) for England and Wales, which provides a national framework of pay and conditions for farm workers.
A gardener from Crawley in Sussex, told Socialist Worker, “This will remove our ability to negotiate our terms of work. I worry that wages will go down.
“Labour brought in legislation to protect foreign workers from gangmasters. I think that could go next as it’s obvious that the Tories are attacking the most vulnerable.”
Kevin Evans, a PCS rep at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, added, “Abolishing the AWB will let bosses try to drive down farm workers’ wages and increase poverty across the countryside.”
He added, “The government calls itself the greenest government ever. But it is abolishing the sustainable development commission, the commission for rural communities, the AWB and attacking jobs at the forestry commission.
“And the forest sell-off is outrageous.”
Farm worker and worker representative on the AWB, Steve Leniec, explained to the crowd how the abolition of the board would affect workers: “The Tories say we don’t need the AWB as we have the minimum wage. But we will lose a national pay structure that gives us grades and allows us to have a career in agriculture.
“The minimum wage doesn’t recognise overtime, which is an enormous part of farm workers’ wages. We’d lose our right to sick pay. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous industries in Britain and sick pay is essential.
“Many farm workers live in tied accommodation close to where they work, to be on call to attend to sick animals and so on. We currently have a rent cap enshrined in AWB legislation. If the board goes, the employer can set the rates.
“We’ve got to convince the millionaires that sit over there,” he said, gesturing towards parliament, “that we will defend public services.”
To cheers he added, “We’ll take a lesson from the students, they’ve shown us how to do it.”
Workers from various trade unions, including Unite, Unison, the PCS, Equity and the GMB, joined the protest. The variety of workers there reflects the scale of the cuts the Tories are pushing.
Bruni de la Motte, a national officer for Unison, was part of a delegation protesting at the threat to abolish the school support staff negotiating body, which negotiates pay and conditions of support workers in schools.
She told Socialist Worker, “Support staff feel they are anonymous. No one really notices them, and now they’ll have less opportunity to make their voices heard.
“They could find themselves at the mercy of local authorities to determine their pay, or even private employers if they are in academies. This is the break-up of the national negotiating system—schools will pay whatever they can get away with.”
Other bodies in the Tories’ sights include the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which they say can be “substantially reformed”.
Karen Monahan QC said that people’s rights could be undermined. “We’re living in difficult times where the most socially disadvantaged will suffer the most,” she told the crowd. “We have economic crisis and moral panics around extremism that are fuelling hate against certain communities.
“This isn’t scaremongering—anyone who has followed the debate on multiculturalism over the past few days will see that ideas that should have been confined to the ideological dustbin are still here.
“The EHRC is there to secure people’s rights against the state. The risk posed by the public bodies bill is high.”
Ellie Paskell, an actor in BBC drama Waterloo Road, spoke passionately about the impact of cuts to the UK Film Council. “It’s horribly ironic that the Tories want to abolish the film council when its most successful film, The King’s Speech, has been nominated for 12 Oscars.
“How dare they! They want to put a stop to the student protests because they’re scared—as they should be. The wool has been firmly lifted from my eyes and I’m not the only one.”
Many people spoke of how to take the fight against the Tories forward.
Sue Bond, vice-president of the PCS, spoke about the TUC protest on 26 March in London. To cheers she said, “We need to get at last a million people on the march. We need to co-ordinate action and fight together.”
And Zita Holborne, a national executive member of the PCS, said, “The protest on 26 March can demonstrate the strength of feeling that is out there. Everyone I speak to is coming.
“I don’t think the government will know what’s hit them.”