A controversial and damaging 96-page report, entitled ‘Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Farm Industries’,  and published by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, has been widely written about by international media in the past 24 hours, and has been met by a strongly worded media release by Wines of South Africa (WOSA), representing the wine industry.  The report implicates the tourism industry too, benefiting from wine tourism.

Sounding like a far more potent finger-pointing at the wine industry than the recently launched South African book Grape’, co-authored by Dr Wilmot James, Professor Jakes Gerwel, and Jeanne Viall, the Human Rights Watch report describes less than acceptable conditions on fruit and wine farms.  WOSA challenges the report on behalf of the wine industry, in that the selection of the more than 260 respondents for the report is not specified, nor have the interviews conducted over the last two years been ‘independently verified’, nor did the organisation seek a response from the farm owners whose workers were interviewed.  WOSA CEO Su Birch writes:”The study relies on anecdotal evidence that uses the cover of respondent protection to avoid substantiating the claims it makes.” She added that the international media release to announce the report was not balanced in its presentation of information about conditions in the wine industry, making it misleading.

The media release of the Human Rights watch, entitled ‘South Africa: Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives’, blames the wine industry for denying their staff ‘adequate housing, proper safety equipment, and basic labor rights’, and calls on the South African government to ‘take immediate steps to improve their working and housing conditions’.  More specifically, the report highlights ‘on-site housing that is is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working, and efforts to block workers from forming unions.  While the Western Cape’s fruit and wine industries contribute billions of rand to the country’s economy, support tourism, and are enjoyed by consumers around the world, their farmworkers earn among the lowest wages in South Africa.  The report also describes insecure tenure rights and threats of eviction for longtime residents on farms.  The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery’, said Human Rights Watch Africa Director Daniel Bekele.  It points a finger at the South African government in the main, in not monitoring conditions of workers, and in not enforcing labour laws.  Only 3% of the local wine workers are unionised, the report says, and there were only 107 labour inspectors to investigate 6000 farms in March this year.  The damaging report has been widely written about in the international press, including The Telegraph, The Guardian, Montreal Gazette, AFP, Times of Oman, as well as broadcast on BBC. 

Mrs Birch added that the report did not write much about the good work which the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association and Fairtrade are doing, and about the wine farms with empowerment deals. “With positive examples of the progress made in redressing past wrongs rendered virtually inaccessible to all but the most serious readers, the report negates the work of those who should be allowed to stand out as role models to their peers”, says Mrs Birch.  The Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association has more than eighty farms audited by the Wine Supply Chain Support Programme, and many of the members of the Association are writing compliance requirements into supplier contracts.  In addition, training is being done about workers’ rights amongst both farm managers as well as their workers, in addition to a training programme ‘addressing discrimination and sexual harrassment’, writes WOSA.  The largest number of Fairtrade wine producers worldwide are in South Africa.

WOSA’s response to the complaint relating to lack of protection for workers spraying pesticides is that clear guidelines for the use of pesticides and worker protection are specified in the Integrated Production of Wine protocol, and is regularly and independently monitored.  Should producers fail to meet the guidelines in this regard, they could lose their accreditation, and therefore their ability to export their wines.

Housing conditions are also addressed in the Human Rights Watch Report.  WOSA acknowledges weaknesses, but states that 200000 workers are housed on wine farms, and quotes Charles Back of Fairview questioning whether any other South African industry provides housing to the extent that the wine industry does. Responsible Alcohol Use, anti-alcohol abuse, and Foetal Alcohol Syndrome programmes are funded by the wine industry.

Neil Pendock, wine writer for the Sunday Times, is not known for his support of WOSA.  Whilst not writing in its support specifically, he urged the Johannesburg correspondent of The Telegraph yesterday to observe how advanced Solms-Delta in Franschhoek is in its relationship with its workers. 

Mrs Birch concluded by saying that the damaging report affects a South African wine industry already struggling with sales due to the strong Rand and the global downturn, and thereby affecting the jobs of the farmworkers even more.  She states strongly:”Let me make it very clear: we condemn out of hand any and all human rights abuses on wine farms. Our disappointment in the bias in the report is in no way an indication of our support for inhumane practices.  It expresses our concern that trade and consumers all over the world could become alienated from South African wines. We call on Government to partner the wine industry in accelerating reform and in rooting out problems”.  The Human Rights Watch media release ends off on a positive note for the wine industry: ‘The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers.  But we are asking retailers (in the UK, Netherlands, Germany, USA, other European countries, and Canada) to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers’, urged Bekele.

POSTSCRIPT: 31/8:The Western Cape provincial government has threatened Human Rights Watch with legal action for its defamatory report about the alleged abuse of farmworkers on wine and grape farms in the province, which may result in loss of income for local farms, reported the Cape Times  yesterday.  The report states that the MEC for Agricultural Sector and Rural Development, Gerrit van Rensburg, has requested details of alleged transgressions from Human Rights Watch, but these have not been forthcoming from the organisation.  COSATU trade union federation and the Black Association of the Agricultural Sector has supported the Human Rights Watch Report.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com   Twitter:@WhaleCottage