The grapes of wrath

grapes-of-wrath-photo-credit-photo-lotte-la-cour
Image Credit: Lotte La Cour

“For me personally, it seems as if modern day slavery is practiced on many farms, and the farmworker is almost viewed as ‘the property’ of the employer.” These words are not mine, but those of a prominent member of the wine industry, and they represent the culmination of a long and arduous research into the South African wine industry.

The South African wine industry contributes R36 billion (US$2,5 billion) to the South African national budget. It has seen booming exports in recent years, especially to Scandinavia, where the rise in imports of South African wine has increased by 78 % in Denmark alone in just 10 years. In Sweden, South African wine has been second or third in wine sales for years, often outselling French wine. Annually, we Scandinavians drink more than 50 million liters of wine.

But despite this apparent success, there are grim, but well hidden realities of the wine industry that have been ongoing for many years. So, perhaps South Africans needed a foreign journalist to show them just how bad it is.

Bitter Grapes UK Trailer

The nasty truths about how wine is produced in South Africa are not new, and the South African wine industry has been warned repeatedly about abuses occurring across vineyards in wine producing areas of the country. In 2011, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Ripe with Abuse,” that focused on the same issues that my film dealt with, and four years later, the ILO published an equally damning report. Both reports were serious critiques of the working and living conditions of South African farm workers. Several local and foreign NGOs and unions have addressed the same issues.

Yet, these reports failed to make headlines in Scandinavia and South Africa. In December 2015, I traveled with a film crew to the Western Cape province to document conditions on farms — filming and interviewing workers. We were commissioned by three Scandinavian public service broadcasters in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and also partly funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs through the Danish international development agency, DANIDA. In total we made three trips to the area.

In anticipation of our arrival for the last of these trips in June 2016, a so-called heads-up warning was sent to 133 stakeholders in the industry accusing of us putting “…unethical questions to workers and changing the angle to a negative.”

Indeed, we were asking critical questions, not only to the various farm owners and industry bodies, but also to the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta). This is an organization which has almost half of all wine producers in South Africa as members, and an organization that many Western importers and consumers must rely on to ensure that the wine we buy is produced under reasonable conditions.

Their label, “Certified Fair Labour Practice,” adorns many bottles and pap-sacks (wine in plastic containers) on supermarket shelves in Scandinavia. But is a label that is issued by an organization whose board gives the industry a majority say, a guarantee that everything is fine?

Or is it as a former member of its board writes in an internal e-mail to the board:

“…We clearly have a case of power imbalances at play here and producers, especially those with deeper pockets, seem to think they own Wieta as their marketing tool.”

This was just one of many e-mails we obtained, following a final meeting with two top-executives from the wine industry. A meeting that was ultimately fruitless, as all the involved farm owners and their industry bodies refused to be interviewed on camera and told us openly and frankly that we were wrong. They even refused to shake our hands in parting, instead sending us off with the words: “You are a disgusting piece of rubbish.”

After a couple of months of editing, the documentary was aired in Sweden and Denmark in October and in Norway in November. This was when the metaphorical explosion began, and conditions in the South African wine industry suddenly began making headlines around the world.

In addition to the many critical points about the working and living conditions among the approximately 100,000 permanent farm workers struggling to survive in the South African vineyards, the documentary also explores how a rapidly growing number of migrant workers from countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe ended up at the bottom of the global labor pyramid. Desperate workers live in cardboard houses, with families and children back home who are trying to survive on four US dollars a day. Not an easy task, given that four dollars a day is half the absolute minimum wage in South Africa.

But they have no choice and they have no voice, especially since only a very few are members of a union. Many don’t even have a work permit and most don’t even know if there is room for them on the back of the labor broker’s truck or bakkie the next morning.

Another alarming thing that the documentary unveiled was the gruesome heritage of the Dop-system, where workers are paid in alcohol instead of money. This system was banned in 1960, but according to researchers at various South African universities and organizations, the Dop-system still exists today, just in other forms, where farmers allow alcohol-dependent workers to buy alcohol on credit. As a result, South Africa has one of the world’s highest levels of children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), with more than 60,000 children born with severe brain damage annually, a condition they will have to live with for the rest of their lives.

We met several of these children, both on the farms and in crèches. One of them was Robyn. She is ten years old, but has the mental development of a child aged four or five. Luckily, she is now in good hands with a foster mother, but thousands of other children like her are not so lucky and face an uphill struggle in life.

After having made headline news for weeks (see here, here, here and here), and after the industry has done its best to “shoot the messenger boy” by claiming that the documentary is “biased” and “one-sided,” both local and national governments intervened.

Recently there were unannounced inspections at five of the farms that we visited in the documentary, and as a result of these inspections, all five farms were served legal notices to improve the conditions of their workers. Some of the breaches include that housing was illegal, the official Health and Safety Act was violated, and that workers had not been trained or equipped with the necessary protective clothing when using hazardous pesticides that for many years have been totally banned in Scandinavia. One of the farms was also in breach of the national wage policy.

The authorities have promised that many more farms will be inspected in the future. Is this good news for the farm workers? Will the wine industry and its respective bodies understand that Apartheid is over and that they must treat the workers as they would like to be treated themselves? Will the Danish, Swedish and Norwegian state-owned retailers and supermarket chains understand that their ethical values and Corporate Social Responsibility policies are more than nice words on a piece of paper.

In the management buzzword dictionary, this is referred to as to “walk the talk.” I would advise the South African wine industry to tie their shoe laces and start walking, and to be assured that we will be hot on their heels for the duration of the journey.

Tom Heinemann

Tom Heinemann is the director of the documentary, ”Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the vineyards.”

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©Africa is a Country, 2016