It’s difficult for an uniformed outsider to tell how much the current farmworker action (officially suspended for now) is affecting wine producers. Reporters do not always distinguish between table grape-farmers and wine-grape farmers.
But of course, conditions among both sets of workers are pretty similar, and bear thinking about by all wine-drinkers. Calls for boycotts of Cape wine are pure opportunism, of course (and there has been only one of them, by the Eastern Cape ANC, as far as I know) – if we were to boycott all the industries in South Africa with badly-paid workers, we’d all go more or less hungry, thirsty and naked.
Attempts to portray the strikes as somehow “political” rather than “genuine” are nonsense. Firstly, because all social conditions, including wages, are inherently political. Secondly, it is insulting to these farmworkers to suggest that they are all somehow being “manipulated” – especially when one considers what they are striking against. It’s back to the old days when the apartheid government thought that all action by essentially happy black people was because of “agitators”.
Winedrinkers who think that a worker needs to be “agitated” because of their wages, should perhaps ponder the price of the last bottle of wine they bought, and see how close it is to the minimum daily wage on which farmworkers in these parts are meant to bring up a family – around R70. A living wage?
The Human Rights Watch Report of a few years back was greeted with anger by most of “the industry”. Nonetheless, sections of the wine industry endorsed the initiative of WIETA (the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association) to encourage compliance with basic national laws and basic international norms (that is, the norms of capitalist society) regarding treatment of farmworkers. Which is certainly better than nothing, especially in its tacit admission that something needs to be done.
I have previously pointed out the fact that the WIETA demands – hard as it seems for most producers to meet them – are extremely modest. The current protest over the legal minimum wage (all that WIETA demands in this respect) is a further illustration of that fact.
Many wineries pay much more than the minimum wage, of course (for example, I was talking to Gottfired Mocke of Chamonix about this issue last week, and learnt how far above the minimum requirement their pay policy is). Equally true is the fact that a large number of grape farmers and wineries are suffering greatly in the current economic situation. It’s not just farm labourers who are facing hard times – there are a few winemakers who are not getting paid at present. Rumours are rife about the number of wineries facing bankruptcy – and if the banks were willing to be stuck with ownership of a whole lot of winefarms and therefore drive the value down even more, well there certainly would be a lot more forced sales and insolvencies than we are seeing.
It’s not a great time to be a grape-farmer, on the whole (though more than a few are thriving), but it’s continuing to be a worse time to be an agricultural worker. To deny that last point, as so many seem to be doing by their obfuscatory talk about “politics”, is simply to make matters worse.
There’s an interesting analysis of the situation by Carol Paton in today’s Business Day entitled “Neither ANC nor DA seems popular with farm workers, who just want a better deal”, which I’d recommend. The paper is hardly a friend of the working class, but this is a more thoughtful, honest grappling with some of the issues than some of the analysis doing the rounds.