A disturbing report from the international organization Human Rights Watch has accused South Africa's fruit farms and grapegrowers of subjecting their agricultural workers to inhuman conditions. But members of the wine industry are calling the report a smear job, pointing out that the organization investigated less than 1 percent of the nation's grape farms. They're fighting back against what they say is an attempt to hurt export sales.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international nongovernmental organization that monitors rights issues, released the report in late August. Staff members interviewed fruit and grape farm workers, farmers, labor organizers and charity workers in the Western Cape region, the heart of the country's wine industry. The report details workers living in dilapidated housing. One 40-year-old farm worker said he and his family had been living in a pig stall for 10 years. Others said farmers forcibly evicted them. "The wealth and well-being these workers produce should not be rooted in human misery," said Daniel Bekele, director of HRW Africa. "The government and the industries and farmers themselves need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms."
The report also said workers were made to spray pesticides without proper safety equipment, that they had little access to toilets or drinking water while working and that farm owners prevented unionization. "Despite their critical role in the success of the country’s valuable fruit, wine and tourism industries, farm workers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights," the report states.
Almost 17 years after apartheid's end, the issue of agricultural workers' rights is still a sensitive one in South Africa. Most farms and wineries are still owned by whites while almost all farm laborers are black. Poverty is a serious issue, and farm labor continues to be one of the lowest paid professions. And the wine industry has had to make a dramatic transition from large farms that sold 70 percent of grapes to brandy distillers to smaller, more quality-focused producers.
Winery owners told Wine Spectator that they don't doubt there are isolated horrible examples of farm owners mistreating workers. But what upsets them is the HRW's blanket accusation against the entire industry. "The Cape wine community has been shocked by the report," said Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, a trade group. "On the one hand, shocked by the conditions exposed, but on the other, shocked by the one-sided, selective sampling and reporting."
HRW 's report is based on interviews in 2010 and 2011 with over 260 people, including 117 farm workers. The report covered about 60 farms, 21 of which were visited by HRW researchers. "Most of the farms produce fruit; approximately one-third are wine farms or wine and fruit farms," the text states. There are approximately 4,000 grape farms in South Africa, which means HRW visited about 0.5 percent. None of the farms were identified, the report says, to protect workers from possible retaliation.
“Readers of the report have no basis for understanding how representative the sample of respondents is," said Birch. "Moreover, the media release, provocatively entitled South Africa: Farmworkers’ Dismal, Dangerous Lives and distributed internationally to announce the report, does not present a sufficiently comprehensive picture of conditions across the wine industry and, as a result, is potentially misleading."
Media outlets in several countries quickly picked up the report, especially in the U.K., which is South Africa's biggest export market for wine. A spokesman for HRW told one U.K. newspaper that customers should push retailers to question where their South African wine comes from. "Globally conditions are tough," said Birch. "This kind of reporting deters importers or retailers from listing South Africa."
Some winemakers are also complaining that the report ignores industry efforts to improve worker conditions and monitor conditions at farms. According to Birch, grapegrowers currently provide housing for 200,000 workers. Winery owners have been working with the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA) to ensure workers are treated fairly. Wineries who buy grapes often insist growers include WIETA worker standards in contracts. The industry has also partnered with Fairtrade to make sure exports come from responsible wineries.
The Western Cape provincial government has asked HRW to name the farms involved so it can take action, but the organization has refused. The government is now threatening possible legal action, accusing the organization of defamation.