The Story of SA’s Farms

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 is being heard in South Africa’s courts.)

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. – Africa is a Country






The Furore 

in Sweden


• Mikael Delin

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 Karel Swart of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), farm workers' 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 percent. 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. – Dagens Nyheter






 Wine, not 

so sweet


• Mitch Frank

A disturbing report from the international organisation Human Rights Watch has accused South Africa's fruit farms and grape-growers of subjecting their agricultural workers to inhuman conditions.

But members of the wine industry are calling the report a smear job, pointing out that the organisation investigated less than one percent of the nation's grape farms.

They're fighting back against what they say is an attempt to hurt export sales.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international non-governmental organisation that monitors rights issues, released the report in 2012.

Staff members interviewed fruit and grape farm workers, farmers, labour organisers and charity workers in the Western Cape region, the heart of the country's wine industry.

The report details workers living in dilapidated housing.

One 40-year-old farm worker said he and his family had been living in a pig stall for 10 years.

Others said farmers forcibly evicted them.

“The wealth and well-being these workers produce should not be rooted in human misery,” said Daniel Bekele, director of HRW Africa.

“The government and the industries and farmers themselves need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”

The report also said workers were made to spray pesticides without proper safety equipment, that they had little access to toilets or drinking water while working and that farm owners prevented unionisation.

“Despite their critical role in the success of the country’s valuable fruit, wine and tourism industries, farm workers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights,” the report states.

Years after apartheid's end, the issue of agricultural workers' rights is still a sensitive one in South Africa.

Most farms and wineries are still owned by whites while almost all farm labourers are black.

Poverty is a serious issue, and farm labor continues to be one of the lowest paid professions.

And the wine industry has had to make a dramatic transition from large farms that sold 70 percent of grapes to brandy distillers to smaller, more quality-focused producers.

Winery owners told Wine Spectator that they don't doubt there are isolated horrible examples of farm owners mistreating workers.

But what upsets them is the HRW's blanket accusation against the entire industry.

“The Cape wine community has been shocked by the report,” said Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, a trade group.

“On the one hand, shocked by the conditions exposed, but on the other, shocked by the one-sided, selective sampling and reporting.”

HRW 's report is based on interviews in 2010 and 2011 with over 260 people, including 117 farm workers.

The report covered about 60 farms, 21 of which were visited by HRW researchers.

“Most of the farms produce fruit; approximately one-third are wine farms or wine and fruit farms,” the text states.

There are approximately 4 000 grape farms in South Africa, which means HRW visited about 0.5 percent.

None of the farms were identified, the report says, to protect workers from possible retaliation.

“Readers of the report have no basis for understanding how representative the sample of respondents is,” said Birch.

“Moreover, the media release, provocatively entitled ‘South Africa: Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives’ and distributed internationally to announce the report, does not present a sufficiently comprehensive picture of conditions across the wine industry and, as a result, is potentially misleading.”

Media outlets in several countries quickly picked up the report, especially in the UK, which is South Africa's biggest export market for wine.

A spokesman for HRW told one UK newspaper that customers should push retailers to question where their South African wine comes from.

“Globally conditions are tough,” said Birch. “This kind of reporting deters importers or retailers from listing South Africa.”

Some winemakers are also complaining that the report ignores industry efforts to improve worker conditions and monitor conditions at farms.

According to Birch, grapegrowers currently provide housing for 200 000 workers.

Winery owners have been working with the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) to ensure workers are treated fairly.

Wineries who buy grapes often insist growers include WIETA worker standards in contracts.

The industry has also partnered with Fairtrade to make sure exports come from responsible wineries.

The Western Cape provincial government has asked HRW to name the farms involved so it can take action, but the organisation has refused.

The government is now threatening possible legal action, accusing the organisation of defamation. – Wine Spectator



September 2013
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