The ethical harvest

Most of the South African wine industry reacted with outrage last August to the strongly critical report of Human Rights Watch into the wine and fruit industries. A more thoughtful response came today, with the announcement of a new “ethical seal” that wineries complying with certain criteria can affix to their bottles – the first ones probably appearing later this year.

The scheme is being implemented under the aegis of WIETA, the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association. Linda Lipparoni, its CEO, says that the purpose of the seal is “to acknowledge and accredit wineries and farms that follow ethical practices and to protect them from any potential negative publicity resulting from those who flout the law.”

Presumably that last phrase is directed at the “rotten apples” that so many commentators said were the sole problem with labour conditions in the industry. The point being, I suppose, that if you want to prove that you’re not one of the rotten apples, you can put this sticker on your bottle.

The whole scheme is, I suspect, something of a triumph for WOSA (Wines of South Africa) and its CEO, Su Birch. WOSA knows more than anyone just how damaging the recurrent accusations about human rights in the Cape wine industry are – the HRW report was the most serious, but far from the only one there’s been. Already some major importers – notably Systembolaget in Sweden, but even supermarkets in the UK – have been making demands that producers provide some proof that the conditions of workers meet basic international standards.

But the HRW report was obviously something of a shock for many of the big players in the local industry. Even while they denied the validity of the report (mostly through highlighting its methodology and wistfully invoking the “rotten apples” theory) they became aware that there was at least a problem of perception. This new scheme, it is hoped, will change all that. The “fair labour initiative” initiative is, rather remarkably, supported by powerful mainstream industry organisations like the SA Liquor Brandowners’ Association, Wine Cellars SA and producer organisation VinPro.

It is also supported by labour and community organsitions like the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, Sikhula Sonke, and Women on Farms

At the time of the HRW fallout, there was quite a bit of invoking WIETA as some kind of alibi. What I said about that at the time was that it was a bit 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.” Etc.

But the Wieta website, then hugely out of date, is now vastly improved, WOSA has pumped some money into the apparently revitalised organisation, and it seems confident it can meet the flood of applicants for accreditation that will – presumably – come flooding in. (There are still only a pathetically small number of accredited wineries, though obviously there are many that could very quickly be confirmed as meeting the required standards.)

A big breakthrough is that now WIETA’s audits do go all the way down the supply chain. A winery can no longer claim anything unless its suppliers can also show that they comply with the requirements of the audit. Well, in fact, let me temper enthusiasm a bit by pointing out that (as with the Sustainability seal) you don’t have to score 100% down the supply chain – far from it. But you have to score at least reasonably well, and show commitment and actual progress. I would guess that there is still quite a bit of working out to do here of answers to complicated questions. Including, incidentally, how this initiative is going to relate to Fairtrade accreditation.

What are the standards, in fact? They are pretty basic:

“The WIETA code of good practice is premised on the base code of the International Labour Conventions’ Ethical Trading Initiative and also incorporates South African labour legislation. It precludes the use of child labour, asserts that employment should be freely chosen and that all employees should have the right to a healthy and safe working environment. Amongst the conditions it sets are that workers should have the right to freedom of association, a living wage and to be protected from unfair discrimination. Worker housing and tenure security rights should also be respected.”

Many aspects of local labour legislation are good – as the HWR report agreed, pointing out that a huge problem is that the state is not monitoring observation. The WIETA audits should at least partly fill that gap, for compliant wineries. Minimum wage levels, determined by the government, are pitifully low, however, and it must be hoped that, at least eventually, an “ethical” sticker is going to require exceeding these levels.

It’s a bit ironical that the press release about the new seal seems proud that it is “a world-first amongst wine-producing countries”. Well, while there are no doubt other countries that could usefully do something similar, it’s also problematical that South Africa needs to do it! It’s rather like individual people wearing a pin proudly proclaiming: “I don’t break the law!” However….

The chances are very good that international pressure will ensure that all producers wanting to export will have to take this initiative seriously. And – though let’s not be too expectant – even local winedrinkers might respond.

There’s room for many people to hope for good coming of the initiative. Many will hope that it helps protect the wine industry’s exports. But the real potential value of it is that it could improve the lives of all those who work long and hard hours in the Cape’s vineyards and the cellars. Personally, I don’t think it will bring what I consider to be social justice to South Africa’s winelands, but it should help a little.

You can find out more about WIETA on their website.

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