Striking South African farm labourers could go to prison

By Peter Kenworthy with permission from the author


6 months in prison for the leaders of the union and a fine of 500,000 rand for the union, or about ten years’ salary for a farm worker at Robertson Winery. This might be the result of a court case between the farm workers union CSAAWU and the wine company.

The farm workers at Robertson Winery have been on strike for over 2 months, demanding a living wage and decent working conditions. Robertson Winery claim that the strike is illegal, and that the striking workers have intimidated and assaulted replacement workers, something that CSAAWU denies vigorously.

According to CSAAWU, Robertson Winery has also demanded that the court fine CSAAWU leaders individually, and threatened to withdraw the annual Christmas bonus for the striking workers, which many of them depend upon, to bolster their salaries of around 3000-4000 rand [£240, €250, $300].

The verdict in the case between CSAAWU and Robertson Winery will be handed down in ten days’ time.

Taking on the South African wine industry
But according to CSAAWU, the problem is larger than the sub-minimum wage salaries and poor working conditions at a few South African wineries such as Robertson Winery.

“We are not only fighting the Robertson Winery bosses, but the whole South African wine industry. All the bosses rally behind Robertson Winery, and we suspect that they are bank-rolling them. They have a clear strategy to smash CSAAWU, as we are the most outspoken union in the wine industry and agricultural sector,” says deputy general secretary of CSAAWU, Karel Swart.

“We will meet with our members to make a proper assessment. But when you stand up against big business you will see big casualties.”

Bitter grapes
Wines from Robertson Winery have been removed from the shelves in several Danish supermarkets, and there has been an ongoing debate on the working conditions in the South African wine industry in Sweden and Norway, in mayor newspapers such as the Washington Post, and particularly in South Africa itself.

The debate started, after Danish documentarist Tom Heinemann’s film “Bitter Grapes” was shown on DanishSwedishand Norwegian national television.

Robertson Winery issued a statement on October 28, where they said that Tom Heinemann’s documentary is “one-sided and somewhat superficial,” and that claims in the film of salaries below the minimum wage, unlawful wage deductions, illegal evictions and the lack of the right to join a union or bargain collectively are untrue.

But according to Tom Heinemann, all he did was to document the truth.

“Whether they like it or not, the conditions in many farms in South Africa are similar to what I showed in my film. I truly believe that if I had made any wrongdoings in my film, they would probably have sued me a long time ago. Regarding the critique of my film for being one-sided is solely their own fault. They have had the chance to participate. They refused – and in a way that’s sad,” he says.

Read more about the conditions in the South African wine industry in reports from Human Rights WatchILO, economist Dick Forslund and BAWSI.