The Story of South Africa’s Very Violent Farms

Thanks to labor groups in Sweden, a major importer of South African wine, who have recently called attention to labour abuses on farms.

Trevor Samson via World Bank Flickr CC.

In 2011 an investigation by Human Rights Watch into working conditions on South Africa’s wine and fruit farms drew international attention. The report documented numerous instances of human rights and labour abuses, including instances where workers faced physical abuse from farmers and were exposed to toxic chemicals. While the report was criticized by many in the agricultural sector for unfairly tarring all farmers with one brush, it played a crucial role in highlighting the prevalence of farm worker abuse in rural areas. It is clear that this violent facet of rural life has not disappeared.

The recent brutal assault of Flip Engelbrecht and his son, Flippie, by a farmer in Robertson in the Western Cape is illustration of this fact. In a Youtube video made and distributed by the family’s lawyer, Engelbrecht’s wife alleges that a wine farmer assaulted Flip and his son on two separate occasions. The brutal assault resulted in the son going deaf and developing epilepsy. During a seizure the son fell into a fire and was badly burned. Both of his hands had to be amputated. (The case will be heard in court on Wednesday.)

Labour conditions in South Africa’s wine industry have received significant attention in recent years, largely due to the rise in wine exports and grower certification schemes. Many of these are aimed at improving working conditions for farm workers (particularly those with fair trade accreditation), although some have also been criticized as marketing opportunities preventing greater transformation. Labour groups in Sweden, a major importer of South African wine, have recently called attention to labour abuses on farms and have called on the state monopoly wine agent (Systembolaget) to tighten its purchasing guidelines. The following article by Mikael Delin appeared in the daily newspaper “Dagens Nyheter” (which was translated for us and kindly reprinted here):

Sweden’s Favorite Wines Made Under Poor Conditions

Some of Sweden’s favorite wines are made under lousy conditions on South African wine farms. Sweden has already consumed 16 million liters of South African wine this year, but workers may not taste the proceeds of the sale. Despite Systembolaget’s ethical guidelines there are continuing problems of low pay and poor working conditions on wine farms in South Africa’s Western Cape province.

Just last year Swedes consumed nearly 34 million liters of South African wine. South Africa is the second largest wine exporter to Sweden, beaten only by Italy.

The working conditions of those South African workers supplying thirsty Swedes with wine have long been abysmal. According to Mr. Karel Swart of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), farm worker’s salaries are not enough to live on, there are long working hours, and union members are threatened and persecuted. “While the white vineyard owners drive expensive cars and live in luxury villas the workers are forced to work like slaves and live in leaky shacks,” he said.

The problem with the South African suppliers is not new for Systembolaget. To improve working conditions on South African farms, Systembolaget adopted a code of conduct on January 1, 2012 along with other Nordic alcohol monopolies. The code includes demands that suppliers comply with minimum wage laws, decent working hours, and have the right to join trade unions.

But the work has been slow. This year Systembolaget followed up with nine South African producers and found numerous deviations from the Code of Conduct. Improper overtime and a noncompliance with health and safety regulations were common.

Lena Rogeman, head of Systembolaget’s sustainability efforts, is still positive. “It shows that the guidelines make a difference, as we discover shortcomings. But we also see that it means very hard work. South Africa has had these problems for a long time, there is no quickfix,” she says.

Union man Karel Swart says he sees no difference at all: “The only major change in South Africa is raising the minimum wage, an increase of 52%. The increase came after months of strikes and violent protests.” But the South African workers could not rejoice for long. While wages were raised farmers began to restructure their labour force and began to evict workers. For many workers rent increased, electricity costs tripled and free transportation was canceled. “Increased wages was a great victory, a victory farm owners now are stealing from us,” says Karel Swart.

Although employers control the living conditions of permanent farm workers almost as much as their working conditions, living conditions are not covered in the Systembolaget purchasing guidelines. But that may change, says Lena Rogeman. “The employer raising the cost of living is a real problem that we think it is a severe problem,” she says. “We are involved in a project to update the code. Among other things, we are looking at including living conditions.”

Those suppliers who get caught paying and treating their workers poorly risk much. “This is a process of development, we are not trying to trap anyone. It is clear that if there is no sign of improvements, then we can remove the wine from the shelf. But we have never done that, it has not been needed,” said Rogeman.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.