Tim James: Yet another wine farm exposure

By , 8 July 2024



Every few years, it seems, there’s another damning report about worker conditions on Cape wine farms. Tellingly, perhaps (though I’m not quite sure what it tells), they don’t come from local sources. It’s usually Nordic organizations or crusading journalists concerned with human rights that make such investigations. Perhaps back home we don’t even think that things like the often very bad situation for farmworkers are worth investigating – or even reporting on when others investigate. The latest such report came out a few weeks back, and I’m not aware of an official response from any industry body, or any local journalistic reference to it (a media release was widely dispersed – though not to me, as it happens).

In fact, the report from Stockholm-based Swedwatch (“Advancing human rights in business since 2003”), entitled Reality Uncorked, is primarily directed at the Swedish state-owned alcohol retailer, as the subtitle suggests: “Working conditions on South African wine farms and the role of Systembolaget”. Swedwatch argues that Systembolaget “should take additional steps to act as a catalyst for positive change in the wine industry and re-evaluate how they can improve working conditions and mitigate risks for farm workers in their supply chain”.

The investigation, carried out for Swedwatch by a local NGO, was a pretty small one, based on interviews with 19 workers on four wine farms, all of which are certified by the local ethical body WIETA, three of them owned by a very large company. The farms were not named in the report to forestall any possible comeback for the workers, though they were identified to Systembolaget (and by Systembolaget to Wieta, I learned, despite an express agreement with Swedwatch not to do so).

Human rights violations in the report include anti-trade union activity (though union membership was allowed), bad housing conditions on some farms, exposure to hazardous pesticides, and the lack of living wages. The last two of those are interesting insofar as the legal situation is concerned. Some chemicals used on wine farms are banned in Europe as harmful to health and the environment, but legally applied here. As for wages, it seems that the prescribed minimum wage was being paid on these farms – though experienced as totally inadequate. Wieta, of course, works largely in terms of local law, but the Swedwatch position is that Systembolaget (and other importers and retailers) needs to implement higher standards and to “use its leverage to enable decent work across its supply chain, while also improving transparency towards consumers and the wider public around the production conditions linked to the wines it is selling.”

Rather unfortunately in my opinion, when I asked generic export body WOSA for a reaction, they seemed to rely a bit too much on such legalism. Communications manager Maryna Calow said that “If we were to be made aware of any transgressions by our producers, we will, of course, step in, however, there are very solid laws in place to protect our workers and we back this.” A similar point had been made in the private communication made by WOSAto its members. This talked about the industry “working together on our journey to improve the lives and working conditions of all workers, through robust third party social auditing, training, capacity building and multi stakeholder social dialogue, while adopting a zero-tolerance approach to violations of our country’s labour and human rights laws.”

Hmm. “Very solid laws”? Surely this is more than a touch complacent in the face of repeated exposure of the inadequacies of the law in terms of decent standards, and of many violations of such legal protection as there is. A bit more evidence about these efforts to improve conditions, and a bit more concern from WOSA would be nice to have. “The industry” makes frequent angry statements about the supposed suffering of grape farmers, very seldom if ever about the suffering of farm workers. No doubt because “the industry” organisations largely represent farmers, wineries and brand owners.

I did also speak about the recent report to Linda Lipparoni, CEO of Wieta, and found her much more nuanced and convincing. I had thought it would be sufficient to ask her one basic question: Do you accept the validity of these latest findings? Are they totally plausible or not? If you say no, well, I don’t accept that; if yes, then obviously your Wieta audits are either inadequate or the Wieta standards are too low.

Not quite so simple, unfortunately. Linda did raise the legalistic issue, and pointed to a lack of full clarity about all aspects of how the information was gained, exactly from whom, and about the contexts, and the extent to which the interviews reflected the situation. But she stressed that Wieta takes reports like these seriously, and I accept that. In various ways Wieta apparently follows up the reports (though not directly by confronting the farms involved), and sometimes the way Wieta’s audits are conducted is influenced (perhaps a need for stronger examinations of various pesticide protocols, for example).

Those audits are significant – and they are made use of by bodies like Systembolaget (which might also conduct their own audits in addition). But what impressed me about Linda’s response to my questions, apart from what came across as sincerity and concern, was that she admitted the insufficiency of audits in themselves. Certifications are just “snapshots”, and other processes are needed, she agrees. Wieta is, for example, continuing to look closely at the implications for worker rights of the labour broker system. I intend to speak further to her about the work of Wieta – something I have not paid much attention to since I did some investigating around the time of the Human Rights Watch report “Ripe with abuse” in 2011 (which did receive good coverage here).

There’s little more I can say about the Swedwatch report. Sytembolaget has responded to it, acknowledging the issues it raises as known concerns that it continuously works on, and referring to its own human rights and environmental due diligence processes. (The report and media release, as well as the Systembolaget response, are available on the Swedwatch website.)  Swedwatch thinks the state monopoly must do more in “high-risk” areas like South Africa. I think that, clearly, Wieta and other industry organisations must also do more. I did ask Linda Lipparoni if she genuinely believed that things have significantly improved for wine-farmworkers, and she is confident that there has been a lot of change over recent decades.

Of course, there needs to be more. And there needs to be more local – as well as international – awareness amongst wine lovers about this aspect of the processes and human involvement that gets wine into bottles and onto our tables.

It’s pretty certain, though, that in a year or two there’ll be yet another exposure of the unpalatable truth about conditions for workers on many Cape wine farms.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.


6 comment(s)

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    Tim James | 10 July 2024

    Per – Thanks for the points you have made so eloquently. There’s much that I agree with, but I’ll just make a few brief responses.

    Firstly, I agree, and I pointed it out too, that the sample of workers and of farms was small. And we can’t be certain of the basis on which the workers involved did become involved. But as you indicated, this is just the latest report, another small bit of evidence for the whole case. Also, given the focus here on the adequacy of Systembolaget’s (and therefore Wieta’s) auditing of the situation – surely even a few examples at prominent farms/brands are sufficient to show there’s apparently a problem?

    And clearly it is not appropriate when, taken on its own, such a small base (admitted in the report) is used to draw wide conclusions, as you say has happened in Sweden. (I saw a piece on the report by the Australian blogger David Morrison, https://winegourd.blogspot.com, which I also thought somewhat unfair in not explaining the very small sample of interviews and suggsting by implication that this was a larger report into the whole industry).

    But, frankly, in my opinion the SA wine industry deserves this to an extent. It is 30 years after 1994, and there has been, arguably, little real progress in the conditions of all agricultural labourers, including winefarm workers. There is silence about the issue from industry bodies, wine journalists, and wine drinkers. Also, I think the response from industry organisations to reports like this is insufficient and inept – partly, because there is not all that much to say of real force.

    Until there is more meaningful change, and an admitted awareness of the true situation from the industry’s leaders, such as they are, and a stronger commitment to change, there will be more such reports, and more pressure on international drinkers and retailers to avoid South Africa wine.

      Per | 10 July 2024


      Thanks for the reply. I understand what you’re saying. I don’t really have sufficient onsite knowledge to know if any improvements have been made or not.

      I have been visiting the South African winelands since 2010 though and the very rudimentary impression that gives me about workers’ conditions (not necessarily in the vineyards) seem to indicate that things are at least slowly getting better. From the CT airport to the city centre you go through the “shantytown” (not sure what the correct expression is in SA, but you know what I mean). The extremely superficial information that gives indicate that things are at least changing. One year there’s electricity wires like a spiderweb everywhere. Then communal toilets. Then satellite dishes. Then the beginning of proper houses replacing the corrugated shacks. Etc. Not much, but at least something. In one of Deon Meyer’s books he finishes with a short text on changes since 1991, for example the number of households with running water. A dramatic improvement. So, things do seem to change.

      Not enough, certainly, but at least changing. (Although the recent governments have not really helped.)

      Then when you see things like in the television program some years back on the conditions in the SA winelands, where they show pictures from workers’ housing and compare that to how people live in Denmark and say “awful, how it is there in SA”… It seems not fair and seems also based on a lack of understanding of the local context. I suspect that in any case it has improved quite a bit over 10 or 20 years. But, yes, not enough.

      Of course, things could and should change more rapidly. It is hard to know how to achieve it though.

      My feeling is that shaming all of the South African wine industry and making consumers around the world abandon SA wines and instead push consumers to buy wines from other countries is perhaps not the best way forward, not the best for SA. And I think that’s the main achievement of many of the actions mentioned in this exchange.

      We bring a lot of people to the South African winelands; we are a wine tour operator (BKWine Tours) and SA is one of the most exciting countries to bring people to (we wish we could convince more people to go there!). We’ve been around to quite a few wineries over the soon fifteen years we’ve been coming and there’s an incredible dynamism. And there is no other country where people talk so much about supporting workers and workers families and helping improve their work and living conditions. (And not only talk.)

      Rather than pushing consumers towards wine from other countries – like the Swedwatch report does, I believe – it might be better to try and make wine lovers around the world appreciate SA wines more and value them to their true value and quality. (South African wines are among the most undervalued wines, price-wise, there is.) While at the same time continue improving farm-workers’ conditions. But you can only do that if the wineries are properly paid for the wines and make money.

      Some additional notes:

      The Systembolaget’s (Swedish monopoly) push for very cheap wines from SA seems very contradictory to their stated goal of pushing strongly for sustainability. How can you at the same time push for rock-bottom prices as a buyer and then on a corporate level say to the suppliers “you’re not paying your workers enough”? Sustainability is also a question of economic sustainability for the wineries (including workers). Not just a question of selling pallets of “the most sustainable packaging, bag-in-box” to Swedish consumers.

      The Wine Gourde is, I believe, based in Sweden and usually very supportive of the monopoly. I have not read his piece so I don’t know if it has any bearing.

    Per | 10 July 2024


    This is, of course, issues of great concern. And I was very interested to read the comments from the South African organisations that you have elicited.

    But I cannot help that the way the Swedwatch report has been developed and presented makes me somewhat uneasy.

    A few points that I am not comfortable with:

    South Africa has almost 100,000 hectares of vineyards and, I believe, some 500 wineries. The report is based on 19 (!) interviews at 4 wineries. That seems rather little to draw wide-ranging conclusions and do communication with dramatic consequences.

    If Swedwatch wanted to make a difference, would it then not be better to be clear in the communication and cite the four companies where they have found these issues? In general, be more specific. I believe they mention that the four are some of the bigger wineries, each probably employing directly or indirectly thousands of farm-workers. At each winery, they have then interviewed four or five people. It seems very far-fetched that those people could be identified (which is given as the reason for not naming the companies), or, lacking that, that the wineries would implement some collective punishment on all employees. So, the “we don’t tell, to protect the workers” rings hollow. Is it perhaps themselves they protect?

    Surely, if Swedwatch wanted to create change, it would be more effective if the public would be told where these issue have been identified. The companies could then respond or perhaps even concretely improve the issues identified. And if they did not, the public could act with their purse.

    This leads to the main issue I have with the way this has been done:

    This report has been widely publicised and has received quite a lot of attention in Swedish media. It has been covered in at least one of the biggest daily papers and in other news channels. The picture it paints – not least due to the “anonymity” – is that this is a picture of ALL of the South African wine industry (based on 19 interviews). “This is terrible,” people think. And as a consequence, many consumers will perhaps think, “I don’t want to buy South African wines since they treat the farm-workers so bad.”

    In other words, the main effect this has is to make people chose other wines than South African wines. “Let’s not buy South African wines, they’re not nice people those who make them.”

    This is a cumulative effect, building on previous similar campaigns, television programs, previous reports, books on the issue, media coverage etc about “the dire situation in the South African wine industry”.

    The result: people shun ALL South African wines.

    South Africa used to be the biggest supplier of wine to Sweden some years ago. Today it is not even in the top three countries.

    Yes, there are no doubt big issues. Pay is not as one would hope (but then one should keep in mind the tenders that the Swedish monopoly sends out to suppliers asking for rock-bottom prices for South African wines. Is there perhaps a link between buyers asking for ridiculously low prices for wines and producers not paying farm workers enough?…). Housing is not ideal (but will not be up to Swedish standards for a long time). Pesticides is a very serious issue, especially if safety regulations are not followed. And so on. Yes.

    But is this the best way to create change? Or is it just making the whole South African wine industry and the country suffer instead?

    It almost seems to me as if the report and communication around it has been designed to function as a collective punishment on all of the South African wine industry rather than being something that can be a useful tool to improve.

    James Payn | 9 July 2024

    Hi Tim and Jos
    Please can you let us know what your contribution is to our country. It is very easy to criticize from your armchair and even easier from Sweden. As for interviewing employees, one is always going to get negative comments from some, it is not only in this country or in the Agricultural sector. Maybe you should be seeing what you can do with your own money to help them. There are lots of farmers who do.

      Jos | 9 July 2024

      Hi James, it not a lot but at least we acknowledge the problem instead of sticking our head in the sand like you do. Imagine thinking that all these organizations investigating labour practices do is interview a few workers…

    Jos | 8 July 2024

    Worker rights exist because employers have always exploited workers every way they could. Need I remind anyone about the ‘dop system’ in which our very own farmers destroyed countless lives through alcoholism and plagued farm communities with fetal alcohol syndrome to this day. I always cringe when guys with their comfy jobs bemoan unions and workers striking for better conditions as if being an unskilled labourer justifies them being treated like a human.

    There are plenty of good farmers who treat their workers well, I’m fully aware of that, but there are also plenty that don’t. And it is indeed telling that people from a country thousands of kilometers away care more about workers than many South African’s ever will.

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