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Trade responds to claims of ‘slavery’ in SA vineyards

Industry bodies have defended South Africa’s wider wine industry after a Danish documentary raised allegations of “slavery” and exploitation of workers at some vineyards in the region.

Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann (Photo credit: Nana Reimers)

The documentary, Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the Vineyards”, was made by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann, a two times winner of the “Outstanding Investigative Journalist” of the Danish Association of Investigative Journalism (FUJ) and three time nominee for the “Cavling Prize” as journalist of the year in Denmark.

So far airing only in Sweden and Denmark, two of South Africa’s key export markets, the film explores the working conditions of farm workers at vineyards in South Africa and 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, based on three visits by Heinemann to the Cape totalling seven weeks, has already prompted Danish supermarket chain Dagrofa to pull wines from Robertson Winery, which is among the wineries featured and where workers are currently engaged in industrial action to demand a 150% increase on entry level wages.

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”, noting that it focused on just three out of 3,000 South African producers.

“Unfounded and without substance”

Defending its working conditions and practices, Anton Cilliers, CEO of Robertson Winery, said a number of the allegations made in the documentary had since been investigated by an independent third party auditor, commissioned by Systembolaget – a government-owned chain of liquor stores in Sweden – which had concluded they were “unfounded and without substance”.

“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,” said Cilliers.

“The fact that the documentary failed to seek views from unions such as FAWU, BAWUSA and Women on Farms, all of which have established reputations in the Agricultural Sector, serves only to undermine the substance of the evidence presented in the documentary.

“The documentary chose to pursue the false narrative that Robertson Winery is party to payment of ‘slave wages and apartheid practices’. It was noted that the documentary chose to ignore the fact that the company has been party to the purchase and transfer of the farm Constitution Road into Trusts, 66% of which is held by up to one hundred and eighty three historically disadvantaged women who work on producer farms. We believe that this extraordinary commercial arrangement was ignored in the documentary simply because it does not promote the narrative of ‘slavery and apartheid’.”

VinPro meanwhile, an industry body that represents 3,500 South African wine producers, condemned the documentary as “biased, unbalanced, and taken out of context”, claiming that it chose to ignore the many reforms made by South Africa’s wine industry and threatens the progress made by the industry overseas.

“Unbalanced reporting, such as the aforementioned documentary, has the potential to do irreversible damage to the image of the South African wine industry, the good work done so far and ultimately its wine exports,” said Christo Conradie, manager of VinPro Cellars.

“It has far reaching effects as the viewer base is not limited to Denmark and other Nordic countries, traditionally a key export market for South African wines, but stretches to other international markets as well. A decrease in exports will immediately affect jobs on the ground, and hamper our development work.”

Cape Town in South Africa

“Narrow narrative”

VinPro pointed out that in the past twenty years, South Africa had established The Wine and Agricultural Trade Association to improve conditions for workers, and raised ethical standards through the global FairTrade initiative. Currently, South Africa is the world’s foremost producer of Fairtrade wines, producing 66% of all wine sold globally under the Fairtrade label.

“We are disappointed that we were denied the opportunity to state our case or respond to allegations in a fair and conducive manner,” it added.

The Wine and Agricultural Trade Association (WIETA), founded in the late 1990s to drive ethical trade in the industry, said that while it welcomed criticism for the purpose of its own development, such criticism should be “well informed”.

“Tom Heinemann’s documentary on the harsh conditions of farm workers selectively reveal conditions on a few farms”, said Linda Lipparoni, WIETA CEO.

“This reflects a very narrow narrative of the progress that the wine industry had made in promoting and respecting farm worker rights. The documentary has clearly been commissioned to be provocative and to create sensationalism. This form of media activism has unfortunately created a distortion of the work of WIETA and the progress that has been made in improving employment conditions and addressing critical ethical issues such as human rights, housing scarcity and the right to decent work and a fair wage in the industry.”

More work to be done 

VinPro, WIETA and Wines of South Africa all, however, acknowledged that despite much progress being made since becoming a democracy some 20 years ago, South Africa still faces many serious economic and developmental challenges.

Trade body Wines of South Africa, responding to the documentary, highlighting the progress made by the South African wine industry, called for greater support of the industry, rather than boycotts.

“Whilst we recognise that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board that support and encourage positive change with regular audits, however these changes simply cannot happen overnight. It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.

“What is needed now is more support of the industry, instead of boycotting it. Each litre of wine sold at the right price point contributes to the successful growth of the industry, which directly translates into a flourishing industry where all its stakeholders, including its workers, are supported. Increased sales of higher priced wines bottled in South Africa will generate better profit margins and have a direct influence in the well being of these farming communities and should be encouraged across the board.”

Bitter Grapes—Slavery in the Vineyards will also be shown in Norway, with Heinemann hoping to also air an English speaking version of the film in Britain, he told the South African Sunday Times.

“My hope is that the documentary will create a debate among all stakeholders into how honest improvements can be made in the vineyards. As it is right now, much needs to be done,” said Heinemann.

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