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Lucinda de la Roux works on a South African wine farm which pays a decent wage. Many of her colleagues on other farms are not that lucky. Photo: Sigurd Jorde

Bitter Drops in South African Wine

The farm workers’ story of how South Africa’s wine is produced is seldom heard. A bottle of red wine from the wrong vineyard carries the scent of suppression and the taste of bitter tears.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The farm workers’ story of how South Africa’s wine is produced is seldom heard. A bottle of red wine from the wrong vineyard carries the scent of suppression and the taste of bitter tears.

Wine from South Africa receives glowing reviews in Norwegian newspapers’ wine columns. When you visit Cape Town, wine tasting at the many beautiful vineyards in the region is almost obligatory. South African wine has conquered a small but steady position on the Norwegian market. Today Vinmonopolet (the state-owned liquor stores) sells 213 wines from South Africa; more than 1.5 million litres were sold in 2010.

What you will not find in the wine columns’ flowery reviews of the latest vintage is a description of the working or living conditions of those have produced the wine you are drinking. If you visit the vineyards yourself, no one will show you the other end of the vineyard, where you will find the workmen’s housing. The smell and taste of hard work, low wages and dangerous pesticides are not allowed to influence your sense impressions when you enjoy your Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay 2011.

One Saturday in December 2011 we met the local trade union outside the gates of a vineyard that supplies grapes to Robertson Winery. The wine cooperative in Robertson, which is located about 2 hours inland from Cape Town, has eight wines for sale at Vinmonopolet. We – Karel Swart from the union Csaawu and I – are not permitted inside the vineyard’s gate to visit the workers. The meeting with the trade union had to take place on the shoulder of the highway. Behind us the lorries thundered past at 100 km an hour.

The workers at the vineyard became motivated to unionise after an episode in which the owner, his son and the foreman detained and beat up a 14-year-old boy who was related to one of the workers. The three denied the attack but have been charged at the local court, where the case is still going 2 years later. The episode and the court case have attracted great attention to the situation at the vineyards. The case has also worsened the relationship between the farm owner and his workers, who have now been unionised and started to make demands.

According to one worker, they previously received more than the official minimum wage of 1375 rands monthly – approximately 122 euros. But now the owners refuse to increase the wages in correlation with the inflation, which is about 12% in rural districts. They want to keep the wages unchanged until they are at the level of the minimum wage, which increases slowly year by year.

The workers related that they can not receive visitors at home because the farm owner decides who is permitted to enter the vineyard. One worker told us that she is unhappy and can no longer tackle the pressure at the vineyard, the place where all her children were born. The owners force the workers to work constantly faster and without being able to take a break.

A member of the board of the local trade union and has tried to negotiate work contracts, without any luck. A letter in which they requested a meeting about the working conditions was torn to pieces and landed in the trash. He himself has been refused work on the grape fields and put to wash the toilets.

“My Land, My Farm”

South Africa is proud of its vineyards, which are all located in the Western Cape region, where Cape Town is the biggest city. Wine and fruits now constitute an important export sector, with thousands of employees. The vineyards are also an important stop for some of the 7-8 million tourists who visit the country each year.

The wine industry itself would like to show off the good examples – the many vineyards that have turned their backs on the racist inheritance from colonial times and apartheid. Several vineyards now have black owners, something that was inconceivable and prohibited a few decades ago. Some farms have also gotten the wages and social conditions of the workers in order. But the trade unions believe that there still are more of the bad than the good vineyards, with regard to the workers’ conditions.

“You can count the good vineyards on two hands,” according to Patricia Dyata, leader of the Sikhula Sonke trade union, which represents women in the vineyards in Western Cape. “Bad working conditions are quite common in the vineyards and are connected with a patriarchal relationship between workers and owners.”

The oldest vineyards in South Africa go 300 years back in time. Wine production has frequently been inherited for generations, and some owners have inherited the attitude “this is my land, my property, and the workers have to do what I tell them”. For Patricia Dyata it is not enough that the wine producers just comply with the labour laws and pay minimum wages. The minimum wage is a measly 1375 Rand (about 122 euros) per month, and there is not much left after deduction of rent, electricity and food.  

“This does not make it possible for the workers to live a decent life under safe living conditions,” Dyata said.

Small and Weak Trade Unions

Only 3% of the farm workers in Western Cape are unionised. Many of these workers still live on a vineyard that is owned and operated by a farm owner and his (rarely her) family. The farms are spread across the rural district, often far from shops, schools or hospital. The workers are dependent on their employer to buy food, get the children to school or visit the doctor. The trade unions challenge the bond between owner and worker; for this reason many farm owners make it difficult for the trade unions to unionise the workers.

Another challenge is that a great many farm workers now live in shanty towns outside the villages in the region. Employment agencies find farm work for them, often just for one season at a time. A labour force that changes with the seasons, from farm to farm and without permanent contracts, is vulnerable and almost impossible to unionise.

“Formidable Effort”

Su Birch is discernibly discouraged by the trade unions’ accusations against the wine industry. She is the leader of Wines of South Africa, an agency that works to promote South African wine on the international market.

“We have most Fairtrade projects in the world. I believe the wine industry is working actively with the problems and the challenges in working conditions,” Birch said.

According to Birch, the South African wine industry is struggling with low profitability. History is a factor. The wine reached the international market only after the fall of apartheid and has now attained a poor niche in the world market. South African exporters have experienced that they have to sell cheap wine, even though South Africa is not a cheap country in which to produce wine.

Thrown out Through the Gate  

The unfair partition of land ownership is a deep wound in South Africa. Although there exist prominent examples of vineyards that have black owners, most of the wine and fruit farms are still owned by the white and rich minority. The historical injustice still results in disagreement and bitterness about the farm workers’ right to housing. Historically, the farm workers have had their own living quarters on the farm, preferably some distance away and out of sight of the farm owner.

“It can be almost impossible to get someone to move from your farm if they live in one of the houses on the farm,” Su Birch complained. “If they have become alcoholics or thieves and you have good grounds for firing them, then you may fire them but not throw them off the farm.”

The wine industry’s representative reacts to the legal system, which states that if workers have lived on the farm for 10 years, then they have the right to stay there for the rest of their lives. Then the owner may not give the dwelling to new and productive workers. If you fire someone who has lived on the farm for less than 10 years, you may not remove him unless he has access to alternative housing. The authorities are not building any alternative housing.

These statements makes Patricia Dyata of Sikhula Sonke furious. “This land was stolen from us originally. We are the original population of this country, but we are treated like intruders in our own country. It is a disgrace that the farmers can throw people off land that is not really theirs.”

A few decades ago, during apartheid, the authorities subsidised the vineyards with money, so that they could build housing for the farm workers. The workers who are now being throw out become the municipality’s problem, even though the municipality has paid for their housing. “These dwellings were subsidised with our money, by government money, by my parents’ tax money,” Patricia Dyata exclaimed.

According to Dyata, it is not especially difficult to throw the workers out either. Only a few days earlier one of Sikhula Sonke’s organisers was telephoned on a Friday evening by workers who were thrown out of a vineyard with its own tourist spa. The workers were then standing outside the gate with a load of broken furniture.

The farm owners made sure to remove thousands of worker families from the farms before the law that would ensure their right to live on the farm was passed. Many families had lived there for generations. The state had not managed to build new and alternative housing, and the workers had ended up in slums outside the small towns in the region.

Twelve-Hour Working Days

Even Su Birch, who represents the wine producers, admits freely that there are problems in the sector. “There is no doubt that abuses occur against the workers. I have absolutely no doubt that problem farms exist,” Birch admits.

Karel Swart from the small trade union Csaawu is eager to show off a problem farm where the workers a few weeks previously asked for help to form a trade union. This is a small farm that grows grapes they sell to other wine producers. The farm had been taken over by new owners a few months earlier, and in accordance with plans they will as of 2012 supply grapes to a vineyard that sells to Vinmonopolet in Norway. With the new owners, however, the conditions became dramatically worse, according to Michael and Elizabeth, who both live and work on the farm. (We do not wish to give surnames or the farm name, to avoid complicating the situation.)

Michael gets home from the grape fields at sunset, 7 o’clock in the evening. He has worked on the farm for 42 years but is now so desperate and angry that he wants to quit. The last wages he received was 200 rand (18 euros) a week. That is far below the minimum wage he received from the previous owner. The working hours have increased to 12 hours daily; in addition he has to walk for an hour to and from the workplace, since the new owner won’t drive the workers out to the grape fields. There are fewer breaks in the course of the day, and he has to work outside even when it is raining. He has also experienced being threatened and reviled by the foreman with insults we are only partly able to translate.

A few weeks earlier one of Elizabeth’s neighbours asked her to call for an ambulance. One of the workers had become seriously ill and was coughing up blood after having spread fertiliser without protective gear. This is not unusual at the vineyards. The ambulance could not get further than to the farm gate a few kilometres from the workers’ housing. The gate was locked for the night, and when they asked the foreman to open the gate, he ended up calling a security firm. The injured worker spent a week in hospital before coming home.

On both of the two farms we have visited, the unionisation of the workers has been met with hostility from the owners. Usually the owner is the stronger party, and it is not unusual for the workers to lose benefits they have had upon unionising. They receive the minimum wage but lose transportation, electricity and subsidised food, which often have been established custom and not regulated by contract. “Now you can go to your trade union and ask for transport,” many farm workers are told after having joined a union, according to Karel Swart of Csaawu.

 “Social Injustice”

The vineyards lie like a green patchwork quilt in the wine districts around Stellenbosch, Paarl, Worcester, Durbanville and the valleys that stretch inwards into the African interior. No common judgement may be passed on the working relationships or social conditions at the vineyards in South Africa. They vary from farm to farm; some have pulled up the roots from the troublesome past, and others not.

A series of reports and studies have taken up the working conditions and social challenges at the vineyards in South Africa. The last in the series, “Ripe with Abuse” from Human Rights Watch, last year revealed a series of human rights violations at wine and fruit farms in Western Cape. The report paints a dismal picture of the agricultural sector by showing examples of poor wages, no use of protective gear, and farm workers who live in fear of losing their job and housing. But the report does not contain good and up-to-date statistics that could reveal the true conditions in the agricultural sector. The wine industry therefore believes the report is biased and unscientific. The trade union believes it shows a real and dismal side of the vineyards. Both are probably right.

“The core of the social injustices for the farm workers in Western Cape is related to a broader picture of economic poverty,” according to researcher Andries du Toit at PLAAS Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

He is trying to give a more independent description, in which the wine producers and trade unions see different aspects of an agriculture undergoing transformation. Du Toit believes that an emphasis on violations of the law or of human rights, such done by Human Rights Watch, distracts attention from the gross social injustices that exist in the agricultural sector: “I believe most of the farms stay within the legal system and observe the core of human rights. But the farms carry out gross exploitation, so the workers are exploited legally,” du Toit stated.

It is probably the case that the majority of the vineyards observe the laws and pay a minimum wage. But the minimum wage is very low and really not enough to live on. Many of the workers have been thrown off the farms, either before the authorities gave the workers the statutory right to remain on the farm or afterwards with the court’s sanction. Many of the workers are seasonal labourers and have work only a few months each year and with extremely low wages. The trade unions feel they must moderate wage demands when export is going badly – but they receive nothing extra when it goes well.

“This is an unjust system. And it is this work force that creates the values in agriculture,” Andries du Toit stated.

Do Not Want a Boycott

Two things both the producers and the trade unions agree on. Neither party wants a boycott of South African wine, rather quite the reverse. They both want South Africa to sell more wine. That would give the trade unions ready arguments for higher wages.

The parties are also in agreement about promoting the two certification systems that exists in South Africa. Fairtrade is an internationally recognised certification system, whereas Wieta (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association) is a South African organisation in which both Patricia Dyata and Su Birch are on the board. Both initiatives make demands with regard to wages, organising trade unions and social measures for the workers.

The local variety, Wieta, has most support in South Africa. Wieta wants the farms to commit themselves to a dialogue and a process so that they in the future will create a real change and not just comply with minimum standards.

“The wine industry wants to promote Fairtrade and Wieta,” Su Birch of Wines in South Africa explained. With both owners and workers on the board, Wieta’s impartial audit of the vineyards may thus contribute to raise the standard and the reputation of South African wine.         

“We also promote Wieta,” Patricia Dyata of Sikhula Sonke stated. But she wants to maintain a critical eye on the organisation, since her members who work on Wieta-accredited vineyards can relate that there are several problems there too.

“You can drink South African wine with clear conscience, but make sure you know where the wine is from, such as Fairtrade or Wieta,” Patricia Dyata concludes.

See also: Sweet Grapes and Poor Seasonal Workers