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Two South African wineries face serious allegations of worker mistreatment in a new documentary for Swedish television.
The documentary called «Bitter Grapes: Slavery in the Vineyards» has already spurred four Scandinavian grocery chains to stop imports of Robertson Winery products. The documentary shows workers for Robertson and for Leeuwenkuil, whose wines sell under the name Lion’s Lair, accusing their employers of paying less than legal minimum wage, deducting more from their paychecks for housing than is allowed, and firing employees who attempt to organize a union. It also shows untrained workers spraying herbicides and/or pesticides and employees who may have been sickened by the practice.
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I watched the documentary, made by Danish director Tom Heinemann with Swedish subtitles, though fortunately most of the interviews are in English. Robertson Winery looks much worse because of its aggressive evasiveness of the filmmakers. The employee housing at Robertson also looks terrible, with no running water. One worker points to the mountains in the distance and says: «There is my toilet.»
A more insidious problem in the film is that the South African organization WIETA that is supposed to certify fair trade wineries looks toothless and clueless. Workers in the film accuse WIETA of existing only to support wine producers.
South Africa’s wine industry is trying to do some fast damage control.
«Obviously our biggest concern is that if there are issues with these two farms, it’s with these two farms,» Wines of South Africa spokesman Jim Clarke told Wine-Searcher. «It’s very easy for people in America to generalize about problems in Africa. The wine industry overall has made great strides.»
I was in South Africa last year and visited wineries as a guest and the rest of the country as a tourist. I won’t defend the two wineries shown – Robertson earned its denouncement. And I can’t claim to be an expert on South African society, but there are a few factors that the documentary doesn’t get into in detail, at least in English.
1. The wineries shown are selling cheap box wines to the Swedish market.
It’s hard for me to believe that ground-level winery workers in other countries are making good wages on cheap box wines.
VinPro, a service organization representing 3500 South African wine producers, claims 30 percent of the country’s wineries are operating at a loss, 6 percent are break-even, 49 percent are low profit (a term that isn’t defined) and 15 percent are profitable.
Companies competing for the low end of the Scandinavian market are trying to move product, but with a system of competitive bids, it’s unlikely that the business is highly profitable. In the US, wine companies like Gallo and Constellation that once competed at the low end have moved steadily upscale because that’s where the profits are. Higher wages depend on higher profits.
2. Worker housing is a key problem in the South African wine industry. Townships where black workers live are urban and far from rural wine farms.
But many wineries don’t like to provide housing because South African law does not allow housing to be a condition of employment; in other words, once a worker moves in, they can’t be evicted if they want to work somewhere else.
Something that most wineries don’t want to talk about, but that can’t be far from their minds, is that some South African politicians favor some sort of land redistribution program. It’s not currently the country’s policy that people who live on a farm eventually own a slice of it, but nobody knows what future governments might do.
The Robertson Winery housing shown in the film is clearly substandard and against the rules of WIETA, though it’s probably not illegal in a country where many people live in slapdash shacks with no running water or electricity. One cannot condone or excuse Robertson’s neglect of its worker housing. But just saying that wineries have to build better housing doesn’t mean they will do it; they may choose not to build any worker housing at all.
3. The filmmaker interviews migrant workers from Lesotho who say they make less than minimum wage for grape harvesting, but they come anyway because «there are no jobs in Lesotho.» One could conduct this same interview in much of the winegrowing world.
4. Herbicides and pesticides are bad for people! Stipulated! It’s another reason consumers should strive to buy organic or biodynamic, and not just from South Africa.
5. The word «slavery» in the documentary and in news stories about it is particularly charged in South Africa. It’s an overstatement based on what’s shown, though. A worker fired from his job for complaining about conditions has an important complaint – hopefully a legally actionable complaint – but is not a slave. While working on this story, I saw this story in the San Francisco Chronicle about nearly 500 cases of human trafficking reported in 2015 in the most liberal city in the United States. I live in a glass house.