Over the past week, I have read a plethora of articles and blog posts calling for the boycott of South African wines, due to working conditions and wage concerns, amongst unionized farm workers.
Calling to boycott wines from a wine region I am truly fond of puts me in a weird position. I clearly do not support poor treatment of anyone in a work environment, but I also think in cases such as this, where the allegations are so troubling, we owe it to ourselves and our industry (wine) to research the heck out of it, and form our own opinions. So, below is an account of my exploration on the issue, which continues to morph daily, as new information comes to light. This post is not geared to sway or convince someone in one way or the other, but it is designed to get some dialogue and perhaps some resolution on the matter.
The Issue in Question
The first call to boycott South African wine came from the African National Congress, Eastern Cape, on November 13, 2012, to support their quest for higher wages and better work environments for farm workers. Farm workers in South Africa currently make 69 rand ($7.89 Cdn) a day and are looking for a pay increase that will take them to 150 rand ($16.91 Cdn) per day. To put this into perspective, a mid-range bottle of wine in South Africa costs 47 rand. According to Eastern Cape ANC spokesperson, Mlibo Qoboshiyane, “the South African wine industry is making a lot of money locally and internationally; therefore, the wage demands of the workers are realistic and can be met by the employers”.
At the start of January, COSATU (The Confederation of South African Trade Unions) called for farm workers to strike, showing a greater stance in the fight for increased wages. The strike lasted for two weeks, which media claims cost the industry 300 million rand ($33.8 million Cdn). Striking workers came from all agricultural sectors, represented by COSATU, not just those working in the grape growing sector. To date, the strike has resulted in minimal gain, and agricultural union leaders have reported scenarios of excessive police force, to the point that three protesters died, during the unrest and clash with police.
Result of the Strike
The strike ended when Agri SA (Agri SA promotes, on behalf of its members, the development, profitability, stability and sustainability of commercial agriculture in South Africa) proposed specific conditions that committed their members to look at local level wage reviews and agreements.
Though most (farm workers, farmers, Agri SA) were happy the strike had come to an end as it seemed business as usual would resume, the Guardian reported that truckloads of farm workers were fired as they tried to return to work, post strike. This was, apparently, done as a form of retaliation from farm owners, and some say it was devised to send a clear message of opposition to the wage increase requests. “I do not know how many have been sacked but in one instance, truckloads of workers were dismissed. In Wolseley, trucks drove into townships and dumped the clothes of farm workers that had been left behind on the farm”, said Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the Black Workers’ Agricultural Sector Union. Moreover, farmers continued operation as they found non-unionised labour to take over positions once held by the striking farm workers. Knowing this makes you question the effectiveness of the stance to strike in this case. In all, only two businesses agreed to some sort of pay raise for their workers, and promised that no firings would occur, within their operation, in retaliation to the strike.
The Farm Owners
Farmers and vineyard business owners in South Africa have been getting support, not just from organizations that support agriculture locally, but from peers on the international stage. Supportive statements call us to recognize that viticulture farm workers in South Africa celebrate free lodging, meals, health insurance, etc…, which they state need to be factored into the total compensation package. These international peers feel as though farm owners are getting a bad rap in this instance and claim that the striking actions taken by COSATU and farm workers are helping no one. Agri SA said the strike and unrest, to date, has cost farmers 300m rand since November and that their farmers are being misrepresenting. “I want to remind those who generalise with abusive remarks against commercial farmers, that those farmers are as law-abiding and caring employers as any other employer in the South African economy,” says Johannes Möller, President of Agri SA, “They succeed in feeding the nation and compete successfully in overseas markets. Ironically, these so-called ‘bad farmers’ are in high demand in the rest of Africa.”
So far, farm owners and organized bodies that support farmers, except Agri SA, have been relatively quiet on the issues, when compared to COSATU organizers, for example. Though it is understood that in the time of possible PR implications that could cost millions, airing on the side of caution with public announcements and commentary may be the initial reaction, but in the case of a potential boycott of South African wines, we’d like to see more from Wines of South Africa, WIETA, and individual farm owners. If all involved want the international community to make the best informed decisions in this case, everyone needs to speak up. We’ve all got a lot to lose; the wine industry in South Africa stands to take a hit financially, and we as international drinkers are not only forced to have our judgement and morality tested (to turn a blind eye or not) but to also question a wine region which produces some of the best wines discussed in the industry. The best advice I can give to Wines of South Africa is “share your thoughts”. The silence isn’t helping.
Title image courtesy of Julie Belle