By Eric Annino from the Terroirist
In recent weeks, there has been great disruption in the South African wine industry thanks to a bold new investigative documentary called “Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the vineyards”
The film, which runs just short of an hour, exposes the horrible conditions of workers on South African wine farms, notably Robertson Winery. While it has so far only aired in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the impact has been substantial: five wine farms in South Africa have been served non-compliance notices and at least one Danish supermarket chain has pulled Robertson’s wines.
The film’s premise is simple enough. South African wine imports to Nordic countries have been on the rise in recent years (up something like 78%). But while consumers have been reveling in cheap wine, they have failed to see the crooked path that brought the wine to their shelves.
Danish journalist and filmmaker Tom Heinemann exposes a form of modern slavery that’s long gone either unseen or ignored on South African wine farms. He visits the farms, speaks with the workers, and is mindful to get the other sides of the story, interviewing reps from the Nordic wine industry as well as a South African workers union. Not surprising, Heinemann is unable to get anyone from the wineries themselves to speak with him on camera.
What unfolds is a tale of ignorance, corruption, and racial divide. The majority black workforce is powerless to effect change, the white farm owners do all they can to maintain the low wage status quo and prevent union intervention, and the organizations who are supposed to be overseeing it all are, as one worker puts it, toothless.
Upwards of 100,000 workers live on the grounds of wine farms in South Africa, far away from the public eye. They live in slums, use disgusting open-air outhouses, and cook over fires built on piles of anything flammable. Deductions are taken from their already illegally low paychecks for these accommodations. In the vineyards, they spray dangerous pesticides and use little or no protection, apart from a thick paste that the women apply to their faces. South Africa actually has laws in place to protect workers from these conditions, but the laws are just not being enforced.
The most shocking scenes in Bitter Grapes are of young, pregnant women drinking heavily. This, the narrator explains, is largely due to a form of subjugation and control perpetrated by farm owners, who have historically paid their workers in alcohol. This practice only further enslaves the workers, forcing them to depend on the farmers for provision of the alcohol they crave.
Bitter Grapes is an emotionally captivating documentary. But if there’s one shortfall, apart from the absence of testimony from the farm owners, it’s the film’s call to action. In the closing scene the director of an organization called TCOE (Trust for Community Outreach and Education) urges viewers to only buy wine from South African winemakers who treat their workers with human dignity and don’t deny them their rights. Yet the whole film is an exposé on how the organizations regulating these winemakers are themselves negligent and corrupt, and how even the “Fair Trade” stickers on South African wine bottles can’t be trusted. So what’s the prescription here? What are consumers to do, short of visiting the wine farms themselves? It’s unclear.
Bitter Grapes is worth the hour of your time. It’s eye opening and human. I’m not sure where else it will be aired, but do check out the website if you’re interested.