Grim times, and VinPro disappoints

The lack of a cohesive wine industry leadership is one of the many distressing aspects of the labour/social unrest which recently gripped the Cape wine industry (amongst other agricultural sectors), and threatens to do so again next week. There remains an urgent need for organised energy to lead the wine industry forward, and to help it address its related social problems (poverty, endemic alcoholism, poor training and productivity of labour, etc, etc).

Remember Sawit, the South African Wine Industry Trust which was a body charged with, among other things, facilitating social transformation in the industry? Never did much, and then handed over its funds to a bunch of black entrepreneurs and others to buy a stake in the KWV. What about the Wine Industry Charter that also seems to have collapsed?

Then in 2002 the South African Wine and Brandy Company was established to implement “Vision 2020”. Oh yeah? It collapsed in 2006 and gave birth to the South African Wine Industry Council which was intended to deal with major wine industry issues, from socio-economic transformation to streamlining relations between the industry, government and other relevant stakeholders. Abandoned. Now there’s just a vacuum. Government – both national and provincial – have done nothing, as far as I can see to encourage a “stakeholder organisation”.

Occasionally WOSA is forced to step into the chasm and try to do something – but this is not Wosa’s role, and nor should it be. Why has Wosa had to build Wieta, the ethical auditing body? Someone had to do it and fortunately Wosa was willing to do so in the absence of anyone else.

All the more is it a pity, against this background, that VinPro, representing a lot of farmowner interests, has put a “moratorium” on its “support to WIETA as accreditation vehicle with immediate effect and until further notice”. This threatens something like collapse for the “ethical seal” that was introduced this year and seemed to give a glimmer of hope for a joint way forward for the industry on social issues. It also seemed likely to help avert the prospect of a great many international buyers giving up on a South African wine industry whose ethical virtues they seem less convinced about than does VinPro.

You can read the whole VinPro statement here. The reason the organisation gives for its action is that, it says, “specific interest groups involved with WIETA continuously made irresponsible and inflammatory statements…. This has, in our opinion, led to a serious breach of confidence, which is totally unacceptable.”

I wonder if VinPro realises that it is also a “specific interest group”? The whole triumphant point about the Wieta initiative was that it brought together a whole range of organisations representing very different sectors. Now, at the first real problem, VinPro pulls out.

It’s a dangerous step, not only likely to further damage the international image of the South African wine industry, but which will also affect mostly the producers that have, presumably, forced this step upon VinPro. Make no mistake, the Cape’s grape farmers producing bulk wine need Sweden’s wine-buying system vastly more than vice versa.

There’s also a bit of irony in what VinPro have done, given that they have called for grievances and disputes to be resolved by discussion and negotiation. Now they are making it clear that they themselves cannot tolerate being involved, in a mutually beneficial and agreed-upon specific programme, with organisations which are obviously in moments of crisis going to act in support of their own constituencies – just as VinPro has done.

Again, there’s great cause to regret the lack of a wine industry leadership that is large and wide and wise enough to avoid this sort of damaging action.

I confess I haven’t seen much in the way of full statements by the organisations supporting the agricultural workers and their allies. But, from the farmowner side, I was more impressed by a statement from a body called Hortgro, “the umbrella horticulture body for fruit and related industries”. Without agreeing with all it said, I thought it managed to put some things in a wider context, and showed  a more mature, thoughtful approach than VinPro’s petulance. (On Agri WesCape’s media page, it’s the item called November Media Release).

Correctly or not, Hortgo says that the action “was instigated by people frustrated in general with not having jobs and issues related to lack of services and infrastructure within rural communities. Whilst agriculture is willingly playing a leading role in rural communities … it is impossible and unrealistic to expect any single sector to address all the social problems in rural areas.”

Probably true enough, surely. This is a large, social problem that goes much wider than the fruit and wine industries. The agricultural poor are not the only poor people that have largely been ignored by the government. Hortgo offers a perspective that is generally lacking, a recognition at least that there are more issues involved than just wages – however much wages form the obvious focus for workers struggling to live half-way decently.

And, by the way, let’s not forget when talking about wage determinations and the like, that up til 1994 there was no minimum prescribed wage at all. Farmworkers (like domestic workers) also had virtually no protection at all until the ANC government made the Basic Conditions of Employment Act applicable to them too. Farmers did more or less as they liked (and got a great many state benefits too.)

Agriculture carries a lot of baggage from the past, and it had better admit it if it wants to move forward.

Let’s hope that somehow we can avoid the violence (of language and of action) that all South Africans so often grasp at the earliest opportunity.

Hortgro is worth quoting again:

“As South Africans we are a resilient lot and we have surprised the world on more than one occasion by finding solutions to the complex issues we face…. These events have shaken the industry and will lead to a review of long term industry and business strategies. There can be no doubt that the current production and cost structure based on labour intensive practices will change over the short, medium and long term. The fruit production structure of the Western Cape will never again be the same, but it will survive and will be more resilient. We believe this to be a once-off event if all the stakeholders genuinely wish to find solutions.”

Let’s hope that Hortgro includes greater fairness to workers, and not just the mechanisation they seem to be threatening, amongst their strategies.

And let’s hope VinPro reconsider their reckless move and return to Wieta. It’s not a great answer, but it’s better being there than not.

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