Poor yields from grapes of wrath

It’s been threatening for a long time: a report from a responsible international body replete with accusations of shocking farmworker conditions in the South African wine industry.

Released this week, the report has attracted a good deal of international concern and predictable defensiveness back home.

The report by the New York-based, independent nongovernmental organisation (NGO), Human Rights Watch, is subtitled simply: “Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries” (the fruit part has attracted less comment so far). It’s the main title that reveals its flavour: “Ripe with Abuse”.

The report’s accusations are directed at both the farming community and the state. Illegal (and legal) evictions and tenure insecurity (where it has been historically useful to have workers living on farms) feature, as do horrible living conditions. The accusations go on: wages even lower than the appalling ones provided for by the state’s determinations, exposure to the noxious products of the agro-chemical industry so liberally applied in the vineyards, denial of the right to organise and even the survival of the “dop system”.

The state has failed to monitor and enforce its protective laws, the report both deduces and illustrates.

But is this all an accumulation of anecdotes or is it evidence? Perhaps both. Is this mass of testimony a sufficient basis for the generalisations made here if there is not also a strong base of statistics and facts?

About half the 260 people interviewed were academics, observers (including me), NGO representatives, lawyers and unionists. The other half were mostly farmworkers.

Human Rights Watch does not do “quantitative research”, the report’s author, Kaitlin Cordes, told me. And there is little other than her own findings, bolstered by the often-extensive experience of some of her interviewees, to support the report’s damning conclusions.

It seems to me a good report, honest and fair as far as it goes. I accept that it conveys with approximate accuracy the general situation in the wine industry (of the fruit industry I have no knowledge). Things are tough for agricultural workers.

The report includes detailed recommendations, most of which are directed at government departments and institutions and urge compliance with legislation.

For farmers the report suggests the obvious remedies. For retailers and consumers it makes hopeful suggestions that they should be concerned about the goods’ human cost.

Unfortunately, though, this is not the report most needed by those arguing for the desperate need for change. There are too many generalisations, far too many qualifications like “some”, “many” and “sometimes”. Defensive industry organisations have jumped on this quality of the report — and they have every right to do so.

Their trotting out of the “rotten apple” theory is less justifiable, but equally inevitable: tell us who’s being naughty and we’ll deal with it, the farmer organisations say with real or feigned indignation. That’s not always easy when the problem is so widespread — instances are (sometimes) difficult to prove and accusers are liable to victimisation.

Wines of South Africa (Wosa) criticises the report for “assertions based on what appears to be random anecdotal evidence”. For counter-argument, however, there’s little organisationally and structurally that apologists and optimists can cite.

To illustrate the industry’s supposed “substantial direct and indirect contribution to improving working conditions” Wosa offers Fairtrade International and the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (Wieta). But is the report disingenuously downplaying such contributions, as Wosa suggests? Fairtrade has a mere 50 farms in the Western Cape participating in its certification programme. As for Wieta, in this context, it’s a joke, primarily because its only real demand is that members observe the laws and regulations, hardly a significant stake in the ethical high ground.

If the industry is as ethically sound as Wosa and the farmer organisations claim why does it need a body like Wieta to encourage (apparently with little success) compliance with the law?

Furthermore, after a decade, and now covering all agriculture, Wieta’s producer or grower membership remains below 150, this in an industry with about 3 500 primary grape producers.

Whatever its failings, this report should be accepted and its significance should not be seen to lie in any possible damage to wine and fruit exports. Rather it should prompt everyone connected to the wine and fruit industries, including the state, to recognise the exploitation and suffering integral to them and to change the situation.

Tim James, a Cape Wine Master, is the Mail & Guardian‘s wine columnist

How to weed out rotten fruit
The Human Rights Watch report recommends that the department of labour should:

  • Enforce compliance with labour and health safety regulations and enforce compliance with laws and regulations;
  • Ensure the rights of migrant and foreign workers are respected;
  • Revise the Protocol for Access to Farms to ensure labour emspectors will not set up advance appointments with farm owners; and
  • Fill all vacancies in the department

The department of rural development and land reform must:

  • Track illegal evictions and take action against parties involved; and
  • Assist those already evicted by looking at how to provide for the short-term needs of these people.

National and local government must:

  • Work together to guarantee the inclusion of farm workers and farm dwellers in government housing plans; and
  • Immediately address the short-term shelter needs of evicted farm-dwellers.

Employer bodies and unions should:

  • Create a create a system to implement the Agri Wes Cape Code of Conduct; and
  • Agree to give labour movements access to farms to grow union support.

Finally, retailers and consumers need to:

  • Scrutinise the willingness of suppliers in the sector to ensure the improvement of conditions of farmworkers.

Nickolaus Bauer

Human Rights Watch has released a report which reveals flawed working and living conditions for those who produce South Africa’s renowned wines and fruit in the Western Cape. For more click here.

  • An earlier version of this article wrongly reported that the Human Rights Watch had recommended that retailers and consumers boycott Western Cape farms that violated labour laws. Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa director, said: “The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers. We are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell.” The article also quoted HRW as urging the government to include “farmers” in government housing plans. This should have read “farmworkers and farm dwellers”. We apologise for the errors.

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