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.