Af Peter Kenworthy
The new Danish documentary, Bitter Grapes, reveals apartheid-like conditions in the South African wine industry.
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Vineyards in the beautiful Western Cape. Delicious looking red wine poured into a glass. Happy consumers shopping for wine in supermarkets. Then the image changes to the conditions of the farm workers and the contrast is immense.
The images are from Bitter Grapes, a new documentary by award-winning Danish journalist and documentarist Tom Heinemann that was broadcast on Danish national television Thursday.
Below the minimum wage
Bitter Grapes documents how farm workers work 12 hour shifts for which they are paid as little as 100 rand ($7), which is below the South African minimum wage. Migrant workers from countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe are paid significantly less, because they are desperate for work, which helps keep wages low.
The film also portrays an industry where workers fall ill from the toxic pesticides that are used in the vineyards. The workers in the film have had no training in the use of the pesticides and do not use masks or other protective gear, other than a facial cream that they apply at home.
According to the workers themselves, they have no freedom of expression and risk being fired if they are members of a union or complain to their superiors.
The workers also blame the Wine and Agricultural Trading Association (Wieta), an organization that oversees the industry’s fair labour practice certification, for turning a blind eye to the conditions they work and live under.
Worse than under apartheid
“My dream is like everyone’s dream. To have a car and a proper home with a wife and everything. To have a proper job that can pay you a living salary, so you know that at the end of your life your family will benefit,” Siyabuela, a young farm worker, says in the film.
Unfortunately, such dreams do not often come true for farm workers like Siyabuela. In the film, we are shown how many live in shacks with corrugated iron roofs with no toilets or electricity.
“The situation from 1994 has got worse. After apartheid it’s worse. They don’t want you to see the lies but you will see people that look like slaves,” says Secretary General of the farm workers union CSAAWU, Trevor Christians.
Director Tom Heinemann agrees. Some farmers and vineyard owners treat their workers as their private property, he tells me, quoting from an e-mail that was sent by the vice chairman of Wieta and obtained by Heinemann.
“If they complain about filthy drinking water or ask for their overtime pay, as two workers told me, they are sacked. South Africa might formerly have laws that protect them from evictions, illegal layoffs and underpayments but it seems that they are not acted upon,” he adds.
The gates are closed
The conditions shown in Heinemanns film paints a picture of the South African wine industry that the wine producers do not want the public to see.
So when he tries to uncover alleged breaches of ethical standards at Leeuwenkuil Vineyard, his requests for interviews are rejected and he is told he will be sued if he perseveres.
The film crew therefore uses small, discreet cameras when documenting conditions at Leeuwenkuil unannounced. The farm workers show pay slips that document salaries of 100 rand ($7) a day for 12 hour work shifts, which is well below the minimum wage and therefore illegal.
The lack of dialogue with the owners of vineyards such as Leeuwenkuil is only too familiar for Karel Swart from CSAAWU. That the workers are supposed to have freedom of speech at the vineyard, as Leeuwenkuil’s director suggests in a letter to Tom Heinemann, is a “total lie” Swart says.
“What we normally see when we will enter the farm, he closes down the gates and he threatens us.”
‘A disgusting piece of rubbish’
Tom Heinemann and his crew experience a similar “warm welcome” at Robertson Winery. Here farm workers have been on strike for two months, demanding a living wage and decent working conditions.
Several Danish supermarkets have recently removed wine from Robertson Winery from their shelves pending an investigation into the working conditions of the farm workers, something that the Swedish government-owned chain of off-license stores, Systembolaget, are also looking into.
Tom Heinemann arranged an interview at Robertson Winery through Wieta, to ask about the working conditions of the farm workers. But when he arrives at Robertson, cellar master Bowen Botha and export director Geoff Harvey refuse to be interviewed.
And when Heinemann repeats the offer of an interview, where Robertson Winery can explain their side of the story, by extending his hand to Botha and Harvey, one of them is caught on tape telling him:
“I don’t want to shake your filthy hand. You are a disgusting piece of rubbish.”
Consumers must act
Tom Heinemann believes it is important to focus on the plight of the farm workers, who ensure that we can buy cheap South African wine, as well as the attitude of wine producers such as Robertson Winery, he tells me.
“I think it is important to show the consumer how some of the wine is produced, and as far as I know this is the first documentary to do so,” says Heinemann, who hopes that his film can help bring about changes in the South African wine industry.
“The supermarkets promise the consumer that the conditions of the farm workers have certain standards, that they are not exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection. That such promises of Corporate Social Responsibility and being responsible for one’s contractor and sub-contractor can be critically investigated is self-evident to me.”
But what can wine-drinking consumers do to make sure that the wine they drink is produced under tolerable conditions? In Bitter Grapes, the interviewees argue that it is important to think and act ethically when buying South African wine.
“I think you, as a consumer of South African wine, have to help change those conditions by beginning to say that you will only drink wine that comes from farms and distillers that take into account these conditions and are willing to make changes in the lives of the farm workers, and that they treat farm workers with human dignity and don’t deny them their rights,” as Mercia Andrews from South African NGO TCOE puts it at the end of the film, before we are shown clouds engulfing Table Mountain and the narrator telling us that legend has it that this symbolizes a battle between good and evil.