Socialist Worker

Judge steps in to stop pay rise

by Helen Shooter
Issue No. 1907

KEPT IN the dark and fed bullshit. That's exactly how mushroom pickers working in Britain felt after a ruling over their pay by the High Court in London last week. These workers, like many in the agriculture industry, suffer low pay and long hours. They were pleased with a decision from the Agricultural Workers Board to increase their pay this October.

The board announced that the mushroom pickers would be given a higher rate of pay than someone classed as a manual harvest worker because their work is not seasonal. The board said this was "reasonable and justified" as mushroom pickers work all year round, requiring a greater commitment to the job and skill. Their minimum wage was to rise from the normal £4.50 an hour to £5.15 an hour. But the employers could not stomach that.

Middlebrook Mushrooms is part of a conglomerate that is the largest in Europe's mushroom industry. They brought last week's court case, backed by the Mushroom Growers Association, to deny the workers the extra 65 pence an hour.

The judge, Mr Justice Stanley Burnton, ruled in favour of the employers. Burnton comes from a highly paid profession that starts at 10am and finishes at around 4pm, with a long break for lunch in the middle. Judges rarely work a five-day week and enjoy regular, long holidays.

Yet Burnton ruled the mushroom pickers did not have "superior skills or commitment", and it was "unreasonable and unlawful" to give them the pay rise. He said this was because many mushroom pickers are recruited from abroad as unskilled workers on fixed short term contracts.

Middlebrook pioneered the use of cheap casual labour in the industry. Back in November 1992 Middlebrook started to bring in casual workers on its factory farm near Selby. The full time workforce, 89 women workers, knew it was an attack on every worker. They started a fightback, beginning with an overtime ban.

One day the management came in and told them to clear their lockers and get out. The women, members of the TGWU, mounted a picket outside the factory. Their dispute became a cause celebre in the union movement for 15 months. Tragically their TGWU union leadership refused to call for the solidarity that could have beaten Middlebrook.

The women finally forced Middlebrook into giving them a paltry compensation deal. Now Middlebrook has come back, using the insecure, low paid jobs it created to drive pay down even lower. They are typical of the bullying bosses who try to attack the pay, rights and conditions of millions of workers across Britain. It's time union leaders led a fight against them.

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Sat 26 Jun 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1907
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