The controversy over worker conditions in some South African wineries has prompted government action.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Monday, 21-Nov-2016
Five South African wine farms have been served legal notices of non-compliance in a worker-mistreatment investigation prompted by a Danish director’s exposé documentary.
The documentary, called «Bitter Grapes: Slavery in the Vineyards», showed winery workers complaining of being paid less than minimum wage and living on company housing in poor condition, without running water or toilets.
The Western Cape Department of Labour did not name the five farms in a story first reported by South Africa‘s Eyewitness News. It said only that the offending farms are in the Robertson and Drakenstein areas.
One of the two major subjects of the documentary is Robertson Winery, which has been facing a strike of about 200 workers for 13 weeks, according to the news site GroundUp. It has not been reported whether or not Robertson Winery is the focus of any of the labor department’s legal notices.
The notices require the wineries to fix specified conditions within 60 days. Labor department spokesman David Esau told Eyewitness News that the conditions include non-potable drinking water and inadequate protective clothing.
The documentary shows untrained workers spraying vines with herbicides or pesticides, and director Tom Heinemann interviews workers who appear to have skin damage. The film also shows workers complaining about being paid less than minimum wage, and of workers being fired after attempting to organize a union.
Robertson Winery has vehemently fought its depiction in the documentary and earlier sent Wine-Searcher a statement calling the film «one-sided and somewhat superficial».
«The documentary chose to rely on the evidence of the officials of a single trade union, which happens to be embroiled at this time in a longstanding industrial dispute over wages with Robertson Winery,» the statement says, adding that accusations of illegally low wages are false. «The fact that employees of Robertson Winery have access to free medical facilities as well as access to housing subsidies/loans and opportunities to further their education, was simply overlooked and ignored.»
Several Scandinavian supermarkets have removed from their shelves wines from Robertson Winery and Leeuwenkuil, the other major focus of the film. Leeuwenkuil’s winery is in Stellenbosch, near but not in the Drakenstein area, so it is possible that it was not the target of any of the legal notices delivered last week.
Heinemann told Wine-Searcher that the government’s action validates his film.
«I have for a long time known that the authorities were investigating the very same farms that appeared in my film, and I truly welcome the preliminary results as an official confirmation on my findings,» Heinemann said by email. «For the last weeks various wine industry bodies have done all they could to ‘shoot the messenger boy’, calling me biased and one-sided, instead of dealing with the root causes of the poor conditions at many farms. After the official statement, I sincerely hope that the industry understands that the violations are not something that you just can hide away by locking the gates, dismissing outspoken workers, or neglecting the official health and safety standards.»
Robertson Winery spokespeople could not be reached for comment on the legal notices.