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Fallout over Bitter Grapes documentary deepens

Five wine farms in South Africa have been served non-compliance notices by the Western Cape Department of Labour following a documentary by a Danish filmmaker that sought to expose mistreatment of workers.

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The documentary, Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the Vineyards”, was made by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann and explores the working conditions of farm workers at vineyards in South Africa. The film depicts instances of long working hours, allegedly in violation of labour laws, unlawful exposure to toxic pesticides without protection, squalid living conditions and unofficial use of the “dop system” – an apartheid-era arrangement in which workers are paid in alcohol rather than money.

The film has so far only been aired in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, but prompted Danish supermarket chain Dagrofa to pull wines from Robertson Winery, which is among the wineries featured. Heinemann has also confirmed to db that the film will be aired in South Africa “soon”.

Last week, the Western Cape Department of Labour confirmed that it had served notices of non-compliance to five wine farms in the province relating to the poor working conditions of farm workers.

While the farms themselves were not named, they are known to be in the Drakenstein and Robertson areas. Workers at one farm were found to not have access to safe drinking water.

“Provision letters mean we are prohibiting a particular action to take place and the contravention notices relate to the supply of protective clothing of workers,” said the department’s chief inspector David Esau.

“In terms of the provision that related to he drinking water, it was tested and found not to be suitable for drinking.”

The farms will be given 60 days to comply with the notices, or could face prosecution.

VinPro, an industry body that represents 3,500 South African wine producers, along with Wieta and Fairtrade, said it had given its full support to the Western Cape Government to “rectify shortcomings with regard to farm worker housing, health and safety” and collectively address the challenges faced on wine farms.

“The broader wine industry remains committed to the upliftment of farm workers and where there are still shortcomings, such cases are continuously dealt with as a matter of urgency,” said VinPro’s managing director, Rico Basson.

“VinPro unequivocally confirms that compliance to the law is non-negotiable to all its members. Cooperation with government is of utmost importance, especially with regard to critical aspects, such as housing.”

At the time of its release VinPro condemned Heinemann’s documentary as “biased, unbalanced, and taken out of context”, accusing the filmmaker chose to ignore the many reforms made by South Africa’s wine industry to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

Following these latest developments, Basson said the reputation of the South African wine industry over the long term was extremely important and that the industry could not afford “transgressions” with regard to working and housing conditions, but maintained its criticism of Heinemann’s documentary.

“We maintain however, that opportunistic behaviour by unions and media like the Danish journalist Tom Heinemann does not benefit anyone and that cooperation and the sharing of correct information should rather be the desired way forward,” added Basson.

Ahead of its release, Robertson Winery published a statement in response to the documentary, which it branded a “one sided and somewhat superficial depiction of the circumstances of the South African wine sector”. It has not been confirmed if Robertson is indeed one of those wineries served with a contravention notice.

‘Compliance is the minimum expectation’

Wines of South Africa has also moved to support the government in imposing these contravention notices noting that “compliance is the minimum expectation” of the wineries involved.

However in joint statement released by Wine of South Africa and VinPro, Basson and Siobhan Thomson, CEO of Wines of South Africa, said “real and meaningful change” would only come when the industry moved beyond compliance to “embrace the spirit of the law rather than its letter”.

“For instance, many producers who can afford it pay way above the minimum wage”, it read. “That’s encouraging. Our development plan moves beyond employing more workers in the sector. We aim to create appealing careers in this sector to inspire young people, particularly those living on farms. This will help create the next generation of specialists and artisans.

“As an industry we always strive to do more, and to that we remain committed. However the issues we face can’t be solved alone. We can only improve conditions in collaboration with government, trade unions, civil society, our local and international partners and wine consumers who expect progress.”



Since we published this article, Heinemann has been in touch with db to give us the following statement: 

“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 courses of the poor conditions at many farms,” 

“After (the governement) Alan Winde’s 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 official health and safety standards,”

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