The rickety wheel of history has come full circle. The 352 year old SA wine industry started by Huguenot refugees from France with heavy lifting supplied by slaves from Africa and Asia is again using slaves to make wine, or at least workers treated like slaves, according to The Telegraph. Reporting on a controversial report by Human Rights Watch which claims workers “are being forced to live in shipping containers and pig sties and operate without proper safety equipment” the sensational report will hammer yet another nail into the coffin of SA wine sales in Blighty. Are the allegations of HRW true? Probably. Do they represent the status quo on SA wine farms? Certainly not.
SA wine farmers are caught in a vicious Catch-22 vice. Income is down as exports of packaged wine plummeted 22.1% over a year and so social conditions on SA wine farms are under severe financial pressure. Many wine farms are for sale and precious few wine farmers farm in the black. In Tulbagh, ancient vines are being grubbed up to grow tomatoes which quadruple income for farmers. If the Telegraph report causes a further drop in SA wine sales, then yet more vineyards will disappear and we’ll all be drinking Bloody Mary’s.
The UK knows all about broken societies and SA farm workers suffer from huge problems of poverty and alcohol abuse. These problems are longstanding and many initiatives are underway to uplift farm workers and improve their lot a lot. It’s clearly the job of activists like HRW to keep an eye on exploitative farmers and blow the whistle when they see a foul.
So is the Telegraph wrong to report on cases of abuse and children being forced to use a bush full of snakes as a toilet? Of course not, but a bit of balance on how progressive farmers are trying to change the situation would help. Perhaps their Johannesburg correspondent Aislinn Laing should meet Mark Solms and see how Mark and fellow Brit Richard Astor are breaking the culture of poverty and abuse at Solms Delta in Franschhoek.
Of course Mark is the first to admit he’s benefiting from generations of slave labour (at the minute, only vicariously, as his investment in uplifting an entire community is costing him millions) but he’s progressive enough to preserve the contribution of those communities in his Museum van de Caab and celebrate slave culture in his annual Oesfees which does wonders for the self esteem of workers and improves relations with the wider community, no end.
23 August 2011
Fairtrade Label SA statement on Human Rights Watch’s report “Ripe with Abuse”
A 96 page report called “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries” was released today by the Human Rights Watch. The report exposes the poor living and working conditions of farm worker and other farm dwellers in South Africa.
“I recognise many of the horrific stories from farm dwellers. In the essence the report is correct. Today, many farms in South Africa and beyond still don’t respect the law or human rights. As an ex social auditor in the agricultural sector I am aware of some serious misconduct and I agree that action needs to be taken. On the other hand, I came across the most fantastic farms where workers are treated with dignity and management adheres to national legislation” says Boudewijn Goossens, Executive Director of Fairtrade Label South Africa.
The limitation of the Human Rights Watch report is that it is about stories from 60 different farms. The report is a compilation of instances of abuse on all these workplaces but presented as if these problems are the norm on most farms. Although the stories are terrible the report can be misleading.
Nevertheless, the situation of many farm dwellers is serious and needs attention. Fairtrade has had a positive impact on the lives of farm dwellers at its certified farms in South Africa and the rest of the continent. We will continue doing this and hopefully more farms will join Fairtrade or other ethical trading systems to show that they are serious about doing the right thing.
We believe that consumers and businesses are the drivers of change. The demand for products that are produced in a sustainable manner is increasing in South Africa, following the international trend. The Fairtrade label makes it easier for consumers and businesses to find ethically produced products and it creates the awareness that civil society can drive change by choosing ethical, sustainable products.
I assume the emphasis on the Telegraph is because you saw that report via the internet, but the Telegraph wasn’t the only newspaper to report on the HRW press release.
The Telegraph gave it 25cm text column (incl headline), The Guardian gave it an entire page with responses by Su Birch, 74cm of text columns plus photograph of grape picker.
I heard the story on the BBC Radio 4 5pm news which led with the reaction and a measured and reasonable response by Su Birch.
Didn’t your own newspaper report in the HRW study? ?
Peter, the Telegraph were first – in fact they bust the embargo by a day. I posted this yesterday morning, before the Guardian appeared and before any local comment (I think).
After years of colonial slavery South Africa is slowly shaking off these shackles from the past. Like any British colony we were taught that if you want tea you need to get yourself a local savage to make it for you. Today workers on some farms still suffer as a results of this, but over the last ten years things started to change, dramatically.
Here’s a short list of some of the many winery’s progress undertakings to uplift our workers lives: http://winetimes.co.za/2011/08.....ve-legacy/
I was referring to the space in the printed real-paper newspapers.
Regarding the embargo time of 07.30 GMT — well, all the newspapers broke that because I had bought the Telegraph and the Guardian by 08.00 UK time (BST) which would be 07.00 GMT, and the papers were available before that.
It is hard to believe HRW set an embargo time of 07.30 because if observed that would miss all the national newspapers and the breakfast TV and the key UK news programme, Radio 4′s Today – which also carries the story.
There is such vehement kneejerk response to the report in the electronic realm. Its completely understandable especially with exports being in the precarious situation that it is in. It doesn’t need bad publicity. But this defensiveness dilutes the essence of the report.
The other side of the coin though if 100% of the wine industry’s (and fruit for that matters) workers were treated fairly, if there was a strong visible political will across the value chain and farmers and owners held peers accountable we wouldn’t have such publicity. It comes down to the industry doing a proactive risk assessment on exposure and take action to mitigate it.
Progressiveness have been in pockets and transformation and at the pace of molasses. Fairtrade and WIETA are doing some work, but the key fact that is missed here is that members that get on board are usually voluntary or ‘urged’ by supply chains or clients. What about the rest? This doesn’t that mean that those that haven’t chosen accreditation are all non compliant but its an unknown number with unknown information. Is the vehement defensive on behalf of this unknown figure too?
I just hope that this will be a collective wake up call for places where workers lives have not changed even in this democracy and, for the industry to cultivate some degree of a stronger political will and also that the calculation of % accredited/inspected farms is compared to the total % grapes/fruit yield and assess if WIETA is having an effect on change and is in fact relevant. I think its needs to do more advocacy, capacity building, be more critical of its own processes and determine who it works for producers or workers or both, cause their in lies the outcomes/objectives that defines the relevancy of an industry body such as this to effect change, mitigate the risk so we can move on from this towards wealth creation and empowerment for all of the industry.
It’s just so sad that so many key industries are so reliant on export to survive. There is a motto in the States that drives much of the local business. That is “Buy American”, we should start “Buying South African” more. Not just wine everything. Made in SA is a stamp that we are supporting a local industry making our own country more resilient the the beckon call of international markets.