South African wine org hits back at damning report

By Helen Glaberson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags South african wine

A report by Human Right’s Watch (HRW) slating employee conditions in the South African wine industry is biased and unbalanced, said the country’s trade organisation.

Individuals working on the country's wine and fruit farms lead "dismal, dangerous lives,"​ according to HRW.

Released this week, the group’s 96-page report,Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries,” ​claims to​document unsavoury living conditions including unfit housing, lack of toilets access and drinking water, plus efforts to block union membership.

“The answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers,”​ said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW. “But we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers.”

Damaging to the brand

Su Birch, Wines of South Africa (WOSA) CEO told this publication the report was extremely emotive and one -sided, barely presenting any positive initiatives.

“We know that this does not represent a true picture of South African wine,” ​she said.

“One can always identify malpractices in any part of the world in any business or any agriculture business”,​ Birch told the BBC.

She said the study covered only 20 wine farms, and interviewed workers identified by trades union and NGOs.

“We have no idea which of the transgressions were on wine farms. For example the researcher has admitted that the two examples of farmers giving their workers alcohol did not occur on wine farms, yet nowhere is this stated in the report leaving the impression it was wine farms and the old “dop” system,”​ said Birch.

The CEO said the report would be extremely damaging to the South African wine brand.

“It will result in some consumer boycotts in the UK, US, Netherlands and Germany, even Scandinavia. It will make buyers internationally more hesitant to list South African wines. It positions the industry poorly in the eyes of other stakeholders such as the government.”

HRW response

HRW spokesperson Kaitlin Cordes told she disagreed with Birch that the report was biased, arguing that it accurately reflected the conditions on Western Cape farms.

“The fact that there are problems in other countries' agricultural sectors cannot and should not be used as a defense for poor labour rights and human rights conditions in South Africa,”​ she added.

The report involved more than 260 interviews with a range of people to get an array of perspectives, said Cordes.

This included farm workers, farm owners, civil society members, industry representatives, government officials, lawyers, union officials, and academic experts, she said.

In the report, Cordes said HRW has noted that there are a range of conditions on farms, and that the group points to situations where better practices occur.

“In addition, we describe the various initiatives that private actors have created to address conditions on farms. We thus strongly disagree that the report was unbalanced.”

Enforce labour laws

HRW said it is calling for the South African government further enforce the labour laws it already has, saying that South African law affords workers much greater protection than they currently receive.

Birch agreed with the HRW that the government needs to further push such laws.

“To address the problems that exist in the system, the government needs to build more agriculture villages,”​ she said.

“We have to make sure farmers understand their legal obligations. There need to be more labour inspectors doing their jobs. As an industry we need to give Wine Industry Ethical Trade​ Association (WIETA) more support.”

Related topics Regulation & safety Beer & cider

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