Reacting to the Human Rights Watch report

Unsurprisingly, the local reaction to the Human Rights Watch report on “Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries” has mostly been unwelcoming – sometimes hostile. [Article written for Die Burger] The noisy public reaction, that is. Various organisations have for a long time been pointing to the problems noted by the report (evictions, bad living conditions, low wages, ignoring legal requirements about leave, health, etc), and presumably these organisations will endorse the accusations against fruit and grape farmers of the Western Cape. Even more will they welcome criticism of the state authorities for not enforcing  protective laws.

Only last week, for example, the Food and Allied Workers Union’s annual congress condemned the conditions under which so many agricultural workers suffer nationally. The HRW report should certainly not have come as a surprise to anyone. Why there’s been such a lot of reaction (especially from the wine industry) is, of course, because the report is getting an international airing.

Although I myself accepted the justice of the report’s findings when it appeared, I criticised the methodology. It was, in my opinion, too limited a survey to confidently make wide-ranging generalisations. This was a common objection, but there were also less rational ones.

Vinpro, an organisation of South Africa’s grape-growers, for example suggested that “Human Rights Watch probably let themselves be led by activists with their own agendas”. Yes, of course the “activists” (including trade unionists, academic researchers, NGOs, etc) have an agenda – their agenda is to protect farmworker interests. Just as the agenda of Vinpro is to protect the interests of farmers, and the agenda of HRW is to expose violations of human rights anywhere. There’s nothing mysterious or malevolent about interests. Those “activists” are responding to a situation which requires action – and requires it even more urgently when government seems less concerned with ordinary people’s problems than with the ambitions of a powerful elite.

The state was the real focus of the report’s complaints, it seems to me, for not fulfilling its duties. In giving its findings of widespread abuse, however, I think HRW was at least politically unwise not to point more strongly to the shreds of progress that have been made in the last decade or so.

There are indeed farmers who treat their workers as human beings should treat other human beings (some always have done so). Some provide decent accommodation and other facilities, and generally abide by regulations regarding remuneration, health and safety, etc. Many pay the legal minumim wage – pathetic as it is. While a few do more than this, I am convinced that a large proportion do none, or not all, of the above.

“Give us evidence!” is the defensive cry. Evidence. Who has it? These investigators found plenty, and were reliably informed of a great deal more. Neighbours have evidence (but are they going to turn informer, especially when they might aso be accused?) NGOs who’ve seen evictions (legal and otherwise) and bad treatment have evidence. Healthworkers who see the horrors of endemic foetal alcohol syndrome have it.

A charity like Pebbles has it – but they understandably don’t reveal what they see even behind the grand walls of some wineries. Most people in the winelands seem to agree that Pebbles is doing good work amongst deprived, impoverished, suffering children. Charities like that have a lot to do. Why?

And I have evidence myself – not systematic and statistical, but the evidence coming from 20 years of travelling around the winelands, of talking to people who know more than I. You don’t even need to look very closely as you drive past some farmworker accommodation, especially in the remoter areas, to be aware of its terrible inadequacies. Not many years ago I attended the funeral of a farmworker in the Paarl area. Even though I was already aware – I thought – of farmworker conditions, I was shocked by the poverty and deprivation that I saw in the community that day as they put on their best display for their dead friend.

A common complaint about the report is that it did not name the perpetrators of the abuses it cited. I think this is wrong. Firstly, because it is not the responsibility of HWR to act as  an inspector of labour – it is their responsibillity to point out where the inspectors of labour are failing to act properly. The report was using evidence, rather, to illustrate a large, depressing picture.

Furthermore, the researchers had to protect those who gave them evidence. It is naïve to expect that vulnerable workers (especially those suffering harsh conditions) will ever feel able to speak out. This is what I was told by the local director of HRW, Siphokazi Mthathi:

“The biggest problem our researchers faced was fear. We met farm workers who were too afraid to speak with us because they did not want to lose their jobs or suffer other retribution. Even many of the people who did agree to speak with us told us they were afraid. When we asked people why they did not report abusive conditions to government authorities, the answer was almost always one of two responses: we are afraid, or, we have tried and no one has helped.”

HRW defends their methodology. This is the sort of research they do, they insist, and it is valid – the evidence they have gathered is genuine, and honestly obtained. And it is representative of the general tendency. Push HRW a little harder and they might say that, well, they just can’t afford to do the desirable massive research projects that would produce reams of supporting statistics. Fair enough. But I think that if they had been a little less confrontational in the way they presented their report, and spoken more fully about what advances there have been, it would have carried the same evidential weight but would not have alienated so many people.

On the side of those defending the status quo, it must be pointed out, the evidence is also anecdotal, even less systematic, more inadequate. The charges have been made forcefully by Human Rights Watch. I believe they have been made sufficiently convincingly that even a sluggish, resentful industry might be prompted to do something. Some are now saying that there must be self-regulation by the wine industry over these matters. (Dislike and distrust of the state, and of the current national government no doubt plays a part here.)

Arguably, more importantly perhaps, some government forces are being shamed into responding to the call for a major strengthening of state bodies to ensure existing laws are observed. If the industry does its self-regulation and makes this unnecessary – wonderful all round.

Others – probably including many of those with least power and the smallest voices – believe that any tinkering with the system is not enough, that fundamental social change is needed. But that doesn’t look immediately likely.

If there is a debate about what should be done, that would in itself be a massive advance – primarily because it would mean an admission that something urgently needs to be done.


A translation of this article into Afrikaans was published as an opinion piece in Die Burger on 16 September 2011

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