Rights and wrongs in the Cape wine industry

An explosion has been threatening (and the threat ignored) for a long time, and here it is: a report from a responsible international body strongly criticising the human rights situation in the South African wine industry. It will surely attract a lot of attention (some vicious), locally and abroad.

The report, from the New York-based independent NGO Human Rights Watch, is being released in Cape Town this morning. It’s subtitle is simply “Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries”, but the main title gives the flavour of its contents: “Ripe with Abuse”.

Some random quotations will indicate the picture given of life for most agricultural workers in the Western Cape:

  • “The South African government has largely failed to monitor and enforce legal protections guaranteeing wages, benefits, and safe working and housing conditions for workers and other dwellers”
  • “The cycle of tenure insecurity, low wages, and lack of housing options for former farmworkers has created a broken system that neither the government nor the private sector has taken responsibility to repair.”
  • “Farmers and government officials violate the rights of farm dwellers by undertaking or allowing illegal evictions or those that will render farm dwellers homeless.”
  • “Farmers often fail to provide the proper safety equipment or take other steps to mitigate farmworkers’ exposure to pesticides, sometimes explicitly denying farmworkers’ requests for safer conditions.”
  • “The state thus far has failed to protect the health and safety of farmworkers.”
  • “The Department of Labour has failed to monitor labor conditions adequately on farms in the Western Cape or ensure that farmers comply with labor legislation and other relevant laws.”
  • Illustrating the survival of the dop system is this story: “Piet A. … told Human Rights Watch that on the old farm his pay slip said he received 1600 rand per month, but that each month he instead received 400 rand …, along with a package of food the farmer said was worth 800 rand, and daily wine: ‘During the week, I am given wine in the afternoon at 12 p.m. and at 6 p.m. in the evening. I also get this on Saturdays. On Sundays, we get wine in the morning, afternoon, and evening. In the morning, we get it before 7 a.m., at 12:00 p.m., and we have to do Sunday prayer and then get more wine at 6:30 p.m.'”

Blame for the continuation of these and other abuses is directed both at farmers and at the state for not protecting vulnerable workers.

Methodology and meaning

I find myself with mixed feelings about the report. I should first indicate that I was one of some 260 people interviewed by Human Rights Watch and was generally critical of the general lack of progress towards decent conditions for most participants in the Cape wine industry.

It seems to me that it is a good report – as far as it goes; I believe it to be honest and fair – as far as it goes; and I think it very probable that it conveys with approximate accuracy the general situation in the wine industry (of the fruit industry I have no knowledge at all). Things are very tough for all agricultural workers, including the majority of those in the industry that produces the beverage we (on the whole, with many exceptions!) love.

But I don’t think, for various reasons, that this report is the one we need.

I mentioned 260 people interviewed. Half of those were academics, observers, NGO representatives, lawyers, unionists, etc; the other half were mostly farmworkers scattered throughout the winelands. Is that sufficient basis on which to make the generalisations that are made here, in the absence of a whole barrage of statistics and facts? (Please remember, I personally think the generalisations are valid.)

Last Sunday (it was a cold and rainy day in Cape Town) I met with Kaitlin Cordes, the main researcher and author of the report, and raised this problem during our discussion. She said that Humans Rights Watch does not do “quantitative research” (producing all those statistics, etc). They think that’s OK, and maybe it is, but it means that we who argue the desperate need for change do not have, with this report, anything definitive. Perhaps we don’t need anything definitive, and we do now have, thanks to Human Rights Watch a lot more evidence of a truly bad situation (one that we – nearly all of us – generally ignore).

The Report is too vulnerable to accusations of using anecdotes (albeit a lot of them and, I’d say, valid and trustworthy ones on the whole) to damn a whole industry. After reading it and being struck by some words, I have just done some counting of them.

The main body of the Report (excluding the summary, references, and all the recommendations –  excellent ones, by the way, directed at farmer organisations, government, unions, etc) is about 23 000 words. I found 40 occurrences of  “sometimes”, 47 of “many”, 50 of “often”, 110  of “some” – as in “some farmers”, “some workers”, etc. That seems to me to indicate the problem. “Some” is all very well – everyone would agree that there are “some” abuses (including the “bad apple” theorists who think everything is basically pretty cool). But just how many? What proportion? How widespread?

We still don’t know, and we can’t be certain that Human Rights Watch has the right to extrapolate as it effectively does.

I would also have liked more detail about some important issues. Labour-broking, for example, an important matter of debate on a national scale, and certainly a growing trend in the wine industry. To what extent is it being used as a way for farmers to evade responsibilities and laws? Is it leading to more abuses, worse wages, etc? Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a report like this to cover everything, but this is a matter crucially relevant to the Report’s concerns.

We do, incidentally, get one damning anecdote in this connection:
“Gerald G., an unregistered labor broker who supplies seasonal labor, said that he never gives contracts or safety equipment to his farmworkers; he was not worried about the Department of Labour learning of his practices, however, ‘because I have friends at the Department and they know what I do.'”

The good side?

Inevitably there will be criticism that the Report looks only at the abuses and doesn’t give credit to the improvements that have taken place, the efforts that are being made to improve things. (The Report does make clear, of course, that there are exceptions, even substantial ones, to the generalities it observes – we all know this, and it’s obvious, so let’s take it for granted that there are nice bosses too.)

Given that there’s very little organisationally and structurally that the optimists can look to (they’d better not invoke the appalling minimum wage, for example – even if it were adhered to) I imagine they’ll have to dredge up, amongst a few others, Fairtrade and WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association).

Fairtrade? “Approximately 50 farms in the Western Cape participate in Fairtrade International’s certification program”, according to the Report. That’s actually “few” rather than even “some”!

WIETA? Something of a joke. Firstly because basically all WIETA demands of its members is that they observe the laws and regulations. Not exactly a big deal in terms of ethical behaviour – those who don’t qualify for WIETA should, in fact, be prosecuted. WIETA also doesn’t audit producers all the way down the supply chain. I went to the WIETA website yesterday to find out how many members it has – but the site hasn’t been updated since 2009. Doesn’t really indicate that this is a dynamic, significant organisation, does it? This Report tells me that, after a decade of existence (and now covering all of agriculture, not just wine), it “has fewer than 150 producer or grower members”. Not much of an alibi for an industry with approaching 4000 primary grape producers, is it?

Enough. I must (eventually) stop somewhere, so I’ll do it here, with the hope that whatever its inadequacies, this Report will not primarily be the occasion of worry about whether it might damage wine and fruit exports. It should, rather, be the occasion for more people in all parts of the wine industry (including consumers) to take cognisance of the real problems, the human sadness and suffering that are, unfortunately, an integral part of our terroir.


– Link to the full Human Rights Watch Report which will shortly become publicy available (it’s not all that long, or difficult reading, and starts off with a summary for those who don’t want to read the whole thing)

• Wines of South Africa has written a response to the report, challenging it on various grounds.

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