An influential South African wine industry figure has attacked UK national newspaper The Guardian for publishing an article carrying union claims that wine farm workers were sacked ‘in truckloads’ after ending strikes last week.
Wines of South Africa (WOSA) carried an open letter written by Edward Schulz, International Sales Manager, Premier Wine Cask, to The Guardian’s editor, Janine Gibson, criticizing her and the paper for running the story by freelance journalist Alex Duval Smith last Thursday.
In addition to the sacking claims, the trade unions (Confederation of South African Trade Unions, COSATU and the Black Workers’ Agricultural Sector Union, BAWUSA) claim in comments The Guardian that Western Cape wine farmworkers suffer from terrible pay and poor working conditions.
But Schulz said the truth was that most Western Cape wine farmers should be “commended, not castigated” for providing their workers with a “costly range of social services”, where he said this reality contrasted vividly with Duval Smith’s story.
“This sad, complex and ultimately uplifting truth contrasts vividly with the deceit of omission, the shrill shallowness of your uninformed freelancer, and your editorial complicity,” Schulz wrote.
Wine suppliers should ‘sort out mess’ – BAWUSA
Nonetheless, it must be said that Duval Smith does supply balance in an article that starts off by mentioning COSATU claims that South African farmworkers were dismissed “in truckloads” after ending a two-week strike last week.
“Unions and charities supporting the Western Cape’s 500,000 farmworkers say pay and conditions are so bad that South African wines, grapes and Granny Smith apples have no more of a place in responsible consumers’ shopping baskets than they had under apartheid,” Duval Smith wrote.
However, secretary general of the Black Workers’ Agricultural Sector Union (BAWUSA), Nosey Pieterse, whom The Guardian quotes , told BeverageDaily.com today that his union did not support a wholesale boycott off South African wines by foreign importers.
My union is not calling for a boycott, but for importers to check if these issues are not being addressed, asking importers to speak to suppliers and say to them ‘if you don’t sort out this mess, then we will not be buying from you again,” Pieterse said.
He added: “Our claims are not generalized, they come out of a study we did on 65 wine farms [approved by an influential trade association as members] in 2011.”
These flagged-up concerns such as treatment of workers, wages, concerns over lack of water, Pieterse said: “So I don’t know upon what basis they [the industry] can refute what we say.”
Employers slam ‘criminal’ strikes
Anton Rabe, a spokesman for farm employers’ organization Agri SA, told BeverageDaily.com this morning that the strikes were over, and that claims of mass dismissals were “utter b******t”.
“We are not aware of any cases that were reported to the police and labor department that are being investigated, so it’s really unfortunate that these statements are being taken as fact and not checked with these bodies,” he added.
“Even during the so-called strikes of farmworkers, there were many farms that operated normally.
“The strikes were mainly by people who did not have work, and unfortunately there was also some violence and criminal activity involved with these strikes,” Rabe said, which had not disrupted the table grape harvesting season (which is at its height) too much.
South Africa’s fruit and wine industries were both subject to third-party ethical audits by international bodies, Rabe said. “Our information is that all export farms are compliant in regard to legislation and other ethical requirements they must adhere to.”
“It’s quite ironic that certain people try to make out that the fruit and wine industry is grossly non-compliant, while just the opposite is true, with lots of lots of upliftment, equity sharing schemes, etc.”
Presented with union claims of low daily wages – COSATU said workers were striking for a wage of ZAR 150 or $16.50/day – Rabe said that the Western Cape had many other social and rural infrastructure issues that his industry should not have to tackle alone.
“Our information anyway is that many fruit and wine growers pay more than the minimum wage. We see the wage as just that, a minimum, and always encourage members to pay more when they can,” he said.