Robertson Winery workers vow to fight on after landmark settlement

Robertson Winery workers are celebrating the victory of a campaign that ignited global solidarity, but they will go back to work on Monday knowing their battle for fair working conditions is far from over.

Robertson Winery workers are celebrating the victory of a campaign that ignited global solidarity, but they will go back to work on Monday knowing their battle for fair working conditions is far from over.

After three months of strike action, workers at Robertson Winery have secured a wage increase. They are celebrating the victory of a campaign that ignited global solidarity, but they will go back to work on Monday knowing it’s not over.

Emile Maseko (28) has spent one year as a general worker at Robertson Winery. When he talks of his duties at the winery, he speaks slowly and precisely.
He wants to get it right. He has to make sure the wine goes into the right bottle, that the boxes are secure and the machines run smoothly. For the past three months, however, his job has changed.

“Some of our older people here are scared of talking. They don’t want to speak because when you speak, the bosses oppress and victimise you,” Maseko, who has become the workers’ spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian.

“The people told me to speak up for them and I’m very glad.  But I know I’m a wanted man by the company,” he laughs.

On Thursday afternoon, Maseko walked out of a press conference in Cape Town where he and members of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) announced that they had secured a settlement with Robertson Winery.

Fourteen weeks is the total amount of time the workers were on strike. What it got them was a R400 increase in a three-year agreement, and an end-of-year bonus. Before the strike, a casual worker earned R2 900 per month and a permanent worker R3 405. Their original demand was R8 500, but the company refused.

“Robertson Winery is satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations and looks forward to the resumption of normal operations,” Anton Cilliers, the company’s managing director, said in a press statement.

For Maseko, the victory is not about the money, it’s about the solidarity of workers. But it’s not over, as workers and the union say that Robertson has racist labour practices.

The fight against ‘an apartheid mindset’
The Cape Winelands has a prolonged history of racism and exploitation of farmworkers. What has affected Maseko the most is the racism that remains.

At Robertson, there are toilets that are reserved for white people. There is also a “3 o’ clock” system where only black workers have to clock in at three different entry points before they start their work, CSAAWU says. 

A black mechanic earns less than half of a white mechanic’s salary. This is according to the workers and the union.  The racism inside Robertson is the battle labourers will take up when they return to work on Monday November 28.

“They are the demands that we are still going to take care of when we are back inside the company. The government has to speak now,” Maseko said.

Brian Ashley, the director of the Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC), helped negotiate the settlement between the workers and Robertson Winery. He told the Mail & Guardian that apartheid still exists in the pysche of the wine farms and companies.

“The industry is based on cheap labour. One of the biggest issues of this company and in the Winelands is racism and a very strong apartheid mindset,” Ashley said.

A documentary called Bitter Grapes also accused Robertson Winery of “apartheid practises”, but the company hit back saying the film was “one sided”. In a press statement, Robertson said they provide free medical facilities, education opportunities, and housing loans to workers, as well as a trust that provides for disenfranchised black women workers. 

“The documentary chose to pursue the false narrative that Robertson Winery is party to payment of ‘slave wages and apartheid practices’,” the company said.

Robertson hired temporary workers to keep production running while their workforce went on strike. The workers couldn’t change the alleged racist policies in the winery, but they plan to return to the company so that they can earn an income and pursue a strategy for fair labour conditions.

According to Ashley, when workers made their decision to settle, they told him: “Let’s get back because once we get back, we’re going to donder (fight).”

‘A victory for human dignity’
In 2012, a profound strike action began in De Doorns and spread through the Cape Winelands. At one point, an estimated 9 000 farmworkers went on strike. It continued in 2013 when their demands for a pay increase were not met by farm owners. 

Little was resolved. Then, a Danish journalist, Tom Heinemann, visited the Cape and made Bitter Grapes, which highlights the “slavery” in the Winelands.

Danish retailers pulled South African wine from their shelves and European countries sent donations to Robertson workers.

“Nothing had happened since De Doorns. The government didn’t listen, the international family didn’t listen,” Deneco Dube, the regional co-ordinator of CSAAWU in the Western Cape, told the Mail & Guardian.

Something has happened now, partly as a result of international pressure. Maseko has hailed the wine company’s willingness to negotiate as a “victory for human dignity”.

The Western Cape government has promised to investigate numerous farms in December. Already, they have released a report which implicates five farms of violating workers rights.

“There is a need for radical change and this strike was just the foundation of it,” Dube said.

CSAAWU has stepped aside to let workers lead the fight against Robertson Winery, and they plan to be there as the workers prepare for the next phase.

“We are going to mobilise all wine cellars into the union. We’re going to launch a campaign to open all the farms because we want to have access to farmworkers and mobilise them into the union,” Dube said.

Hope for a better labour movement
South Africa’s labour movement has seen increasing fragmentation and, with it, workers have often been left behind. CSAAWU, Ashley believes, has shown there is hope that the labour movement can rebuild.

“It’s quite amazing and refreshing for the labour movement. I would suggest that some trade unions adopt the ethos and principles that CSAAWU has represented during this strike; it will make the union movement once more a dynamic place rather than what it is at the moment,” Ashley said.

Dube knows there is much work to be done. The government has proposed a national minimum wage of R3 500, but his union is disappointed: “We are really disagreeing with the government with this proposal of R3 500. How can you say this will improve someone’s life?”.

Maseko and the 222 workers he went on strike with are ready to prepare for next year.  He is hoping they will make a difference.

“It’s difficult and talking about this situation makes me feel very angry. But now, the company is forced to address these issues. We believe we can do something,” he says.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography. Read more from Ra'eesa Pather

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