South Africa’s Vineyard Workers Are Ripe for Exploitation

Kari Lydersen

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Many a business deal, romantic evening or other happy moments around the world have been sweetened by South African wine.

But as a new Human Rights Watch report called Ripe for Abuse” details, the mostly black and poor workers who tend and harvest grapes for mostly white-owned wineries in South Africa’s fertile Western Cape live and work in horrendous and exploitative conditions. The report says vineyard workers are among the most vulnerable people in South African society: working long hours in harsh weather conditions, often without access to toilets or drinking water… [T]hey earn among the lowest wages in South Africa, and are often denied benefits to which they are legally entitled.”

The report, which includes photos of the lovely wine country and the hard daily lives of workers, describes a sector that employs thousands of poor South Africans both on a temporary and seasonal basis and also migrant workers from countries including Zimbabwe and Lesotho. It was released with this stirring video:

People depend on farms (including vineyards) both for work and, in many cases, housing. Farmers typically provide free but often grossly substandard housing — shacks and former outhouses — for workers and for workers’ family members or past workers. Arbitrary and illegal eviction from these homes is a constant risk for residents, including farmworkers who were injured on the job and have few other options.

The report notes that farmers regularly use illegal tactics – cutting off electricity, intimidation with dogs and weapons, telling other workers to move in — to evict workers from their farms, violating with impunity the legal protections against unjust eviction that do exist.

Vineyards are typically operations heavy in pesticide use and fertilizer, and South African farmworkers report laboring without anywhere near adequate equipment to protect them from the toxic chemicals. This is especially troublesome given that the majority of workers are women, who often work while pregnant.

Only about 3 percent of farmworkers are unionized, the report says, and retaliation from farmers and the often seasonal nature of the job make it very hard for them to unionize. As in the United States, South Africans have the right to form unions and be free from retaliation for organizing, but there are only 107 labor inspectors responsible for 6,000 farms in the agricultural Western Cape.

Workers quoted in the report said they were threatened with firing if they joined a union, and if they weren’t fired, farmers found myriad other ways to retaliate. The report quotes a 38-year-old vineyard farmworker who did join a union and was beaten by a foreman and harassed in retribution:

[The farmer] doesn’t like unions. He treats union and non-union members different: for non-members, he gives loans [and] paints houses, but he will never help union members.”

Farmworkers rarely get paid sick leave, maternity leave, vacation, health benefits or other benefits. Discrimination against women is common and women often struggle to hide pregnancies and keep working. Farmworkers often work without contracts specifying their wages and conditions, making them highly vulnerable to wage theft and other abuses. And only in the past decade has a highly disturbing process known as dop” been mostly eliminated from the winemaking industry. That tradition entailed farmers paying workers partially with free wine, which created alcohol dependency, made accidents more likely and contributed to what workers describe as a still-existing problem with alcoholism and domestic violence.

As in the U.S., some South African vineyard owners and other agricultural industry players have agreed to codes of conduct, both proactively and under pressure from farmworker associations. The report says:

In 2001, Agri Wes-Cape, the largest farmers’ association in the province and the provincial affiliate of Agri SA, adopted a comprehensive Code of Conduct for its members; in 2002, the wine industry created the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association, a multi-stakeholder initiative that audits members; in 2008, the fruit industry began an ethical trade program; and some international retailers have imposed their own audit requirements and supported other programs within their supply chains.

These initiatives have had varying degrees of reach and impact, but have so far failed to dramatically alter conditions across all farms in the Western Cape.

Winemakers have eagerly embraced sustainability and corporate responsibility in their marketing campaigns worldwide, not surprising for an industry that depends much on image to differentiate brands and is offering a non-essential product to consumers who are willing to pay top dollar for something they feel good about.

This trend has apparently trickled down somewhat to working conditions in South Africa and elsewhere, though as the report shows, clearly not enough.

The New York Times featured an award-winning vintner from a Zulu village, Ntsiki Biyela, who had never tasted wine before receiving an affirmative action-type scholarship from an airline and support from winemakers who wanted to increase their diversity.

One quote from Biyela highlights the extent to which the country’s signature industry has been completely the province of white Afrikaaners for centuries. All the wine-related classes at her college were in Afrikaans. Biyela recounts her experience at one tasting:

One is saying, I am picking up hints of cassis,’ and another is saying, I can smell truffles…I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I said what I was smelling was cow dung…It’s a smell I grew up with. I didn’t grow up with truffles.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism instructor, leading the Social Justice & Investigative specialization in the graduate program at Northwestern University. She is the author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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