Supermarkets in Denmark have started taking South African wines off their shelves following a scathing documentary on conditions for farmworkers at some of the country’s top wine estates.
By: Tanya Farber – The Sunday Times
The documentary, Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the Vineyards, by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann, was aired in Denmark and Sweden this week.
South Africa is the second most popular country of origin for wine sales in Sweden. In Denmark, imports have soared 78% over the past 10 years. The Scandinavian region consumes 50million litres of South African wine a year.
According to a study published by the South African Wine Industry Information and Systems last year, the industry contributes R36.1-billion to South Africa’s GDP.
Heinemann told the Sunday Times that he had a hostile reception from wine estates when they learnt he was making a documentary. “I don’t want to shake your filthy hand. You are a disgusting piece of rubbish,” he quoted one estate owner as having said.
The film describes widespread violations of labour laws, including workers receiving R105 for a 12-hour shift, exposure to toxic pesticides without protective gear or training how to use the chemicals, shocking living conditions, deductions of up to 80% from wages and an unofficial dop system.
“My hope is that the documentary will create a debate among all stakeholders into how honest improvements can be made in the vineyards. As it is right now, much needs to be done,” said Heinemann.
Early next month it will be shown in Norway, and Heinemann is in talks with British and other broadcasters to air an English version.
Already Dagrofa, one of Denmark’s biggest supermarket chains, has pulled some wines off its shelves – including products from Robertson Winery, where a strike over working conditions is in its second month – and others are likely to follow.
Trevor Christians, general secretary of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers’ Union , said owners of wine estates wanted to hide the truth. Conditions for farmworkers resembled slavery, he said.
Heinemann criticised the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association, a local organisation set up to ensure fair labour practices. Foreign retailers rely on its stamp of approval.
“There seems to be a conflict of interest on the board,” Heinemann said. ” With nine board members, five are from the industry itself.”
He cited the example of Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards, whose wines carry the association’s stamp of approval.
Despite this, Heinemann said, he obtained certified copies of workers’ payslips which showed earnings below the minimum wage.
Association chairman Mzukisi Mooi said the board had 10 members, whereas documentation supplied to the Sunday Times by Heinemann names nine members, as does the organisation’s website.
According to the website, three members represent unions and the Women on Farms Project NGO. Others represent producers, Wines of South Africa (an industry body that promotes exports), and the South African Liquor Brand Owners Association.
Mooi said the organisation “welcomed criticism” unless it “derails efforts” which required delicate and lengthy discussions between owners, trade unions and nonprofits.
He did acknowledge, however, scenarios of “producers and growers who tend to hide behind parapets rather than being more transparent, engaging and compliant”.
Robertson Winery labelled the documentary as a “one-sided picture of a very complex situation”. The film was “doing more harm than good, risking valuable jobs by wrong accusations”, it said in a statement.
“That three out of 3,300 farms would be representative of the wine industry is unreasonable.”
Western Cape economic opportunities MEC Alan Winde said the department would investigate the documentary’s allegations.
VinPro, a mouthpiece for the farm owners and producers, criticised in the film, saying much “progress has already been made in terms of the conditions of farmworkers”. It called the film biased.
Pieter Carstens, Leeuwenkuil’s head winemaker, said an intense investigation by “third-party auditors” had been conducted and the wine estate was cleared of any wrongdoing.
“We were not breaking any South African laws,” Carstens said.
‘I HAVE TO BE QUICK IF I WANT TO EARN R60 A DAY’
“Piece” worker (casual labourer) from Lesotho who gets on average R60 a day: “There are many workers who are affected by the pesticides – we get allergies and rashes. I know what I earn is not legal. But what can I do? It is very hard work and I have to be quick if I want to earn R60 a day.”
Deneco Dube, paralegal adviser to farmworkers’ union CSAAWU: “The farmers don’t like unions. They will find the leader of the union, or someone speaking out on behalf of the workers. Lawful or not, he will dismiss them. He believes that when you cut the leadership’s head, the whole body is nothing any more.”
One worker who approached a farm owner about dirty drinking water on the farm: “I have raised my concerns about the water problems on the farm. He said if I am not going to do what he says, I must resign and leave the farm.”
Pregnant worker dismissed: “I told him I am six months pregnant and can’t be expected to lift heavy bins. He said my work was unsatisfactory and sent me home.”