Grand Constance, Groot Constantia’s flagship wine, is rumoured to have been Napoleon Bonaparte’s wine of choice during his time on St Helena. Two years ago, the Decanter Asia Wine awards gave it a rare score of 98 points out of 100, describing the wine as “exceptional”.
Groot Constantia suggests that the Constance be paired with “brioche toast and chicken liver parfait”. Or, for dessert, with “a dark chocolate and citrus terrine or a chocolate fondant with salted caramel”.
But two ethical audits of Groot Constantia conducted by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta) in 2017 catalogue the poor working conditions on the farm.
The second Wieta audit was intended to gauge whether Groot Constantia had righted the wrongs uncovered by the first. Yet, both audits categorised the estate’s approach to working conditions as “major noncompliance”.
They confirm earlier findings by the workers’ union, the Commercial Stevedoring and Allied Workers’ Union (CSAAWU).
A damning Human Rights Watch report published seven years ago showed that the working conditions at Groot Constantia were replicated throughout the Western Cape. According to Trevor Christians, the union’s secretary general, little has changed and the conditions at Groot Constantia are not isolated. Farm workers in the Cape are living in “piglike conditions”, he says.
Established in 2002, Wieta is an association of wine industry stakeholders — bosses and workers alike — “committed to the promotion of ethical trade”. To gain ethical accreditation, Wieta members are expected to ensure, among other things, “the safe storage, application and disposal of pesticides and agrochemicals”.
They are also not allowed to avoid their obligations to workers by using “subcontracting arrangements” and, when they do use labour brokers, they must ensure that the broker complies with the Wieta code of conduct.
In May 2017, Wieta found Groot Constantia to be in breach of its ethical guidelines. Among the violations were the incorrect storage of flammable substances and the use of pesticides.
The follow-up inspection of the estate five months later found that the drinking water provided to Groot Constantia workers was so contaminated that it stained their clothes. Petrol and other flammable substances were still being stored haphazardly and there were no safety measures in place to protect workers who handled toxic chemical products.
But Groot Constantia said it had taken action to rectify the issues. It said the water was tested and found fit for human consumption, and the concern about workers’ personal protective equipment was addressed by requiring workers to sign for it.
The estate said it had submitted a remedial action plan and had taken immediate action to rectify the noncompliance issues. Two matters remained outstanding — a risk assessment, which needed more time, and a second water test by Wieta, which revealed a blue stain. “We have taken action to locate the cause of the blue colour and once identified to have it rectified,” the estate said.
[Astringent: The workers’ union says conditions are appalling but the estate says it has rectified matters. Daniële Schneider/M&G)]
But Boitumelo Ramahlele, a CSAAWU health and safety officer instrumental in bringing the working conditions at Groot Constantia to Wieta’s attention, said the actions taken by Groot Constantia were cosmetic.
The farm had implemented some immediately visible changes but the water running from the new showers still stained blue, chemicals were not safely stored and workers using pesticides were not protected. The experiences of workers at the estate “are very harsh”, he said.
The audits also reveal that Groot Constantia is among the growing number of farm owners who are sidestepping obligations established in post-1994 labour legislation by employing workers through labour brokers on precarious contracts.
Both Wieta inspections of Groot Constantia noted “insufficient and ineffective management of the temporary employment service in terms of the legal obligations towards his/her workers”.
The workers have not been paid out for their leave by the labour broker. Some have not been provided with contracts. According to Ramahlele, some workers have worked at the estate for more than four years on casual contracts. Amendments to the Labour Relations Act in 2012 guaranteed employees who had worked for the same employer for more than three months the right to a permanent contract of employment.
Groot Constantia said meetings were conducted with the labour broker to “discuss and address” the concerns raised in the inspections, followed by “immediate action” to rectify these concerns.
Some workers approached by the Mail & Guardian did not want to go on record for fear of victimisation. “We are scared to say anything and don’t want to ask questions because we will be fired,” one said.
Ellen Fortuin started working at Groot Constantia in 2010, shortly before she turned 40. After four years of heavy lifting, packing wine into boxes and boxes on to pallets, she severely damaged the nerves around her spine while stretching up for a box in the cellar. She was medically boarded and required four operations over the next two years, including one on her back and one on her neck.
Fortuin said she had still not received any compensation for her injury or for the income it cost her, and Groot Constantia “cannot come up with a straight answer” when she questioned this.
Zann Maho is 43 years old and has worked at Groot Constantia for nine years. She lives in a house on the estate but the roof is in danger of collapsing. Maho said she was confused and angry about how a not-for-profit company, which she thought should be “investing in the lives of workers”, could allow her family to live under these conditions.
Julia Bennet shares Maho’s anger. Now 31 years old, Julia, a cleaner on the farm, has lived at Groot Constantia since she was nine. Her father was a worker there for 19 years before he died three years ago. Bennet was starting her own family at the time.
She received a letter from Groot Constantia on the day before her wedding informing her that her husband could not live with her on the estate. Then, when her father died, the estate served her with an eviction notice.
According to Groot Constantia, the condition of workers’ homes and the payout of outstanding leave were discussed and addressed during wage negotiations in 2017. The estate denied that workers who had lost their jobs as a result of injury were not being compensated, and said these workers continued to earn 75% of their income.
It added that it was “fully committed to adhere to all obligations” with regard to workers living on the estate.
Groot Constantia enjoys a formidable reputation abroad. According to Christians, this is in no small part because of its Wieta membership.
Wieta’s mandate was “to improve the working conditions of workers in the wine value chain” but, Christians said, in a sector with weak unions, the ethical body had served “organised, powerful, white and mostly Afrikaans” agricultural interests, whose brand strengths benefited from Wieta’s ethical accreditations. Wieta’s ethical standards might look good on paper but they had done little to change workers’ lives, he said.
CSAAWU continues to report poor working conditions on Wieta-member farms but the union has boycotted the mediation processes set up by Wieta, calling it “a talk box”.
Wieta has the power to take disciplinary action against Groot Constantia, including suspending or withholding Groot Constantia’s ethical certification, but the association would not say whether any disciplinary action had been taken.
A trade built on slaves
Groot Constantia was conceived in the same bloody chapter of South Africa’s history as the arrival of white settlers on the shores of the Cape.
The Dutch East India Company’s Heere Sewentien granted the land that now comprises the estate to Simon van der Stel in 1685 in recognition of his years of loyal service as governor of the Cape of Good Hope.
For 100 years thereafter, two of every three litres of wine produced on the farm went to the Dutch East India Company.
By 1706, 60 slaves were responsible for the labour in the Groot Constantia vineyards.
The Cloete family bought the farm, and more slaves to work it, in 1778. Slavery was abolished in 1834.
It remained in the family for generations before, on the brink of financial ruin, it was bought by the Cape government for a pittance on auction in 1885.
Groot Constantia remained in government hands throughout the 20th century, passing through the control of the Agricultural Technical Services and the South African Cultural History Museum.
In 1976, the government established the Groot Constantia Control Board to oversee the wine-making. The farm was declared a national monument in 1984. In 1993 the Groot Constantia Trust, which owns and represents the farm, was established. — Dennis Webster