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08.24.2011

South Africa Has Some Work to Do

I'm an unabashed fan of South Africa. I love its wines, its people, its food, and the land itself in all its natural glory. Consequently I was quite disturbed to see the news coverage over the last couple of days surrounding a report recently released by the organization Human Rights Watch that, in no uncertain terms, allegedly documents systematic human rights abuses in the South African Wine industry.

The allegations in this report include seemingly rampant violations of South Africa's own labor and health laws, including inadequate safety precautions to avoid worker exposure to toxic chemicals and poor or no access to drinking water or toilets for workers.

The report also documents harsh treatment at the hands of employers, poor living conditions for many who reside on the farms where they work in the vineyards, and systematic attempts to prevent any sort of collective action or negotiation on the part of the workers.

On the whole, the report characterizes a whole set of abuses that are unfortunately not uncommon to agricultural enterprises around the world. Indeed, such violations of farm worker human rights have only recently become uncommon (but not extinct) in my own homes state of California.

Many upstanding South African wineries, including those that I visited personally, are no doubt outraged at the way this report characterizes their industry, in what they will doubtless perceive as an imbalanced manner.

And they should be upset. But the extent to which this report accurately characterizes even a small portion of the South African Wine industry represents a tragic and deplorable state of affairs that is indeed a blemish on the whole.

This report will most certainly damage the budding reputation of a wine industry that is very much coming into its own on the global stage. South Africa is on its way to becoming a truly world-class producer of wines, and this will be a setback.

Wine consumers reading about this report may well choose to stop buying South African wines, fearing that they may be supporting the kinds of practices outlined in the report. Such a reaction is as understandable as it is unavoidable.

Refusing to purchase South African wine is not the appropriate response to this news, however. A precipitous drop in demand for South African wine will have a profound negative impact on likely many more workers than suffer from the abuses documented in this report.

Instead, consumers, retailers, and importers should do two things: take the time to learn about any South African winery whose wines you might consider buying, and insist they document their labor practices. Wine drinkers, and the buyers that supply them ultimately have the most power in this equation, and we can use that power to help stamp this problem out.

I also urge the South African government, along with all the country's industry-wide organizations to take the steps necessary to ensure that these human rights abuses stop immediately, and that controls are in place to prevent them in the future. The future of the South African wine industry depends upon it.

Comments (17)

Miquel wrote:
08.24.11 at 11:35 PM

There are many, many issues with South African wine production right now. I was there last year and visited about 30 wineries in the Stellenbosch area. What both the owners and the workers told me can't really be repeated as the political situation in all these white-owned (with the exception of one and maybe now three) wineries is not good.

While they'll keep producing wines due to the revenue it brings in, the next decade will likely see a great deal of upheaval. I still like the wines though, but am unhappy that the majority of the good ones I've tasted are not to be found on the West Coast of the US. I do like the fact that restaurants in Cape Town are very content to be SA wine-centric and pour few imported bottles. Wish California could be more like this...

HWC wrote:
08.25.11 at 9:08 AM

Two thoughts:

1. Well thought out logic on influencing supply/demand of SA wine and helping not hurting workers already abused. Bravo.

2. "On the whole, the report characterizes a whole set of abuses that are unfortunately not uncommon to agricultural enterprises around the world. Indeed, such violations of farm worker human rights have only recently become uncommon (but not extinct) in my own homes state of California."

Sad but true. I'm afraid this probably sums up many things we have no idea about.

-hwc

Marc Adams wrote:
08.25.11 at 10:04 AM

Alder, before attacking the South African wine industry for labor issues, how about looking at labor issues in Napa or perhaps even better- the central valley.

Well I guess Emerson was right when he said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Alder, please remember when quoting different social organizations that they just might have a little baggage too. This year Human Rights Watch was called to task for having an advisor, Shawan Jabarin, for the terrorist organization PFLP on their Mideast advisory board and just recently the head of HRW Middle East and North African division was called to task by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic Monthly for having a “soft spot” for Qaddafi and son. A tad more problematic me think than not having proper toilets for workers.

Alder, I enjoy your wine writing. Political opining of Gavin Newsom and friends, not so much.

08.25.11 at 5:43 PM

I watched the video, read the report and looked critically & carefully at the "study's" methodology. I was appalled at the methodology and presentation. The video is emotionally compelling to watch but I have rarely seen such empty sensational, non factual information masquerading as a report. There is definitely a political agenda here. I've been a consultant to political groups and this is classic.

I hope that wine lovers won't unfairly stop buying wine from South Africa based on this unfair, and truly suspect "report."

I've already reached out to South African winery owners to present their side of it. I don't write political pieces but I do feel it is unfair not to provide another side of the possible truth. I hope other wine writers will explore writing about South Africa.

Tom Lynch wrote:
08.25.11 at 9:20 PM

A detailed read of this report makes it easy to poke holes in the claims of abuses happening "often" and questioning the agenda of HRW. But, I think it is much more important to do two things:

1. Admit that there ARE abuses in SA wine and fruit, as well as abuses of farm workers all over the world, and take the reminder that as consumers we have a responsibility to be aware and smart about what we buy.

2. Realize that a blanked boycott of SA wines hurts the people who most need assistance. Alder, you make the point in general terms very well. There is also the issue that many SA wineries are going far beyond just complying with laws, and I've found very many wineries making huge investments in empowerment, training, and even ownership. A blanket boycott of SA wines would harm their efforts to do the right thing.

08.26.11 at 12:28 AM

Alder, the report is upsetting - given the global reach it has and the allegations made. It is especially sad knowing how many jobs the wine industry creates and maintains - to think about the potential damaging impact of this report in a volatile economic environment.

Being associated with VinPro, an industry body focused on the well-being of the South African Wine Producers community (which includes farm workers), I know how much work has been put in and focus there has been on good and fair practices - both human rights and food safety. I hope further investigation and the resulting validation or questioning of this report will find the same publicity (http://www.wine.co.za/News/News.aspx?NEWSID=18574&Source=News)

08.26.11 at 2:30 AM

Thanks Alder, I particularly enjoyed your points stated here "Refusing to purchase South African wine is not the appropriate response to this news, however. A precipitous drop in demand for South African wine will have a profound negative impact on likely many more workers than suffer from the abuses documented in this report."

As with any industry and any country there are certainly human right elements slipped through the cracks however, like other industries there are those who are going over and above the normal laws to provide additional learning, shelter and food for loyal workers and their families. There is always a context and in some of these allegations, reports have simply missed the context.

But one thing I do hope this PR creates is some form of awareness of what programs are readily available for farm workers and for the government to open their eyes, which they have closed for so long resulting in farmers and workers to take the law in their own hands.

Good review.

Marc Adams wrote:
08.26.11 at 3:38 PM

Regarding the tweet "disturbing report from HRW about South African viticulture." IF I was Jewish I would be more concerned about the HRW position on my existential well being than the quality of toliets for farm workers. Alder, but I'm not Jewish. So how about I send you something written by Viktor Frankl and you stick to the politics of fine, smooth tanins in Rutherford Cabs.

Alder wrote:
08.26.11 at 4:21 PM

Marc,

You obviously have a strong opinion about this that is different than mine. You've expressed your point of view, with plenty of snark. Give it a rest now.

08.28.11 at 10:05 PM

Let's remember that South Africa is a very poor country especially compared to the US., with unemployment nearly 25%. The people need the work, so any boycotting would further hurt the workers. I have worked in the vineyards of South Africa and have to say that complexities of the society are not easily understood from far away. So yes they have long way to go, but look were that came from. As mentioned above farm worker have it tough nearly everywhere in the world. I think we can begin as society, by acknowledging the fact the farm worker are some of the hardest working yet lowest paid people in the world.

Cliff Kolber wrote:
08.29.11 at 3:17 AM

Alder, Bravo! For both the article and your response to comments. Your presentation was spot on and fair. There's always others out there with their own agenda. Thanks for pointing out this issue to us!

clive wrote:
08.29.11 at 5:42 AM

on the subject of sa wine, this story from the nytimes over the weekend
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/27/world/africa/27safrica.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=wine%20%20south%20africa&st=cse

Alder wrote:
08.29.11 at 9:15 AM

Clive,

I've reviewed Stellakaya wines here on Vinography, they're great. This woman mentioned in the article you linked is a superstar, and definitely represents everything great about the current trajectory of South African wines. She's one of many reasons I'm a fan of South African wine.

08.29.11 at 2:22 PM

My NorCal based company and our managed affiliates have been growing wine grapes on 700 acres in Napa and Sonoma for 38 years, and on 215 acres in the Western Cape of South Africa for the past 11. Accordingly, we are very aware of living conditions for farm workers in both areas. Since the subject today is South Africa, I'll confine the discussion to our vineyard in Breedekloof and my personal experience visiting hundreds of "wine farms." After adding 3 additional living units in 2006, we now have 10 worker families living with us; 9 couples who are active workers and a retired couple. Including 6 children, we are housing 26 souls in above average living conditions. While the housing did not have electricity when we acquired the farm, we soon obtained service from the local utility, paying for poles and transformers, and provide it for free to our people. Besides lights, some of the people use electric heaters in their cottages and some heat with wood stoves; there is plenty of firewood on the property, too. The water on the farm is abundant, clean, sparkling, and running. Three additional men live off the vineyard in homes on adjacent vineyards and in a nearby town; therefore, we have 21 total very adequately housed workers.

Since we have a very stable workforce, it was not difficult to carefully train them to use safety precautions when using harsh chemicals (which we also minimize). All these workers are salaried 12 months per year, receive three weeks of paid vacation, numerous government mandated holidays, and free health care. They work 45 hours per week and receive a new set of work clothes every six months. (We used to employ more off farm workers but the acquisition of a used grape harvester machine four years ago has reduced our harvest worker needs substantially; however, the steeper slopes are still picked by hand by our own people.) We have also built a small day care center for the children to use until the are ready to attend elementary school. About six years ago there was an attempt to unionize the local farm workers; a number of our workers signed up, paid initiation fees funded by bank loan, and then the head organizer ran off with all the union funds, and left the workers stuck with their unpaid loans. Almost needless to say, there have been no further attempts at unionization.

Over 17 years, I have made 27 trips to the Cape and spent well over a year in total time on countless vineyards there, including at least 100 owned by other farmers and winery owners. Based on my first hand industry experience, for any organization to assert "rampant violations of South Africa's own labor and health laws, including inadequate safety precautions to avoid worker exposure to toxic chemicals, poor or no access to drinking water or toilets for workers, harsh treatment at the hands of employers, poor living conditions for many who reside on the farms where they work in the vineyards, and systematic attempts to prevent any sort of collective action or negotiation on the part of the workers" is irresponsible and simply not true or fair. Certainly there must be a few bad apples among some 3,700 employing farmers, but I have yet to see them. I would be surprised if 1% of growers were significant moral and legal violators, and there are well enforced laws to constantly clean up bad actors. Most farm workers are also well aware of their rights to decent conditions and collectively will not hesitate to report abuses.

Alana Gentry wrote:
08.30.11 at 7:32 AM

Dave, thanks so much for the detailed information. Alder, your post has provided a forum for this excellent information--fantastic.

rs wrote:
08.30.11 at 5:33 PM

Everyone has put in their 2 cents, so I will too.
Opinions ranged from "It's terrible to This doesn't belong in a wine blog."
If the injustices, or worse, are happening, of course we should care, but most of us have full plates and problems in the good old USA. Our choices include political activism, ignoring the problem and hoping someone else will take care of it, stop reading your blog, boycotting SA wine or other real or knee jerk responses. Remember the serenity prayer. Obviously, this had a big impact on Alder. Let it go.

09.05.11 at 1:23 PM

My South African Vineyard General Manager/Partner, looked over my earlier post and noted that we had failed to mention our retirement program for the workers, so I am correcting the oversight:

Any worker in our service for one year, automatically becomes a member of retirement fund underwritten by Sanlam, a big life insurance company in South Africa. Basically the workers pay 6.5% of their wage toward the fund and the company contributes the same amount (6.5%) as well as a funeral plan cover of ± R21 per person. For this the employee receives the following benefits:

1. When they reach the retirement age of 65, they qualify for a pension based on contributions.
2. If they become medically disabled, they qualify for a lump sum payment of twice their yearly income.
3. If they die before they are 65, a death benefit of three times their yearly salary is paid out to their estate (they also nominate beneficiaries)
4. Every member also qualifies for a R10 000 funeral plan cover, which is paid out within three days of death. This coverage also includes a spouse and minor children and they can add other family member at a marginal additional rate.

While we do not provide free medical aid, we simply provide for basic medicines, such as aspirin, cough syrup, first aid etc. We also provide transport for workers to go to the clinic or doctor and we pay the doctor’s bills; the workers pay the bill back over an extended period interest free.

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