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Comment - Wine - It's Wrong to Boycott South African Wine

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Last week, British newspaper The Guardian published a news story on striking grape workers in South Africa. In the article, a union leader called for a boycott in the UK of the country's wines. Here, the head of the Wines of South Africa trade body, Su Birch, argues against the call.

The Guardian's article addressing the recent strikes in South Africa implies that workers in the wine industry are involved in the unrest. This is not the case and has the potential to do unimaginable damage to an industry that is working hard to ensure the ethical treatment of workers.

The article states: "Unions and charities supporting the Western Cape's 500,000 farm workers say pay and working conditions are so bad that South African wines, table grapes and Granny Smith apples should be as unacceptable to the responsible British consumers as they were under apartheid." The prominence given to the views of BaWUSA (Building and Allied Workers Union of SA) and its boycott call is saddening. Our industry supports the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Association (WIETA) and Fair Trade; and the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions have actually called for an end to the strikes.

To date, there is no evidence any of the protests have involved workers employed on wine farms. In any case, BaWUSA represents only a tiny proportion of wine farm workers, about 2.3%. In the article, BaWUSA spokesman Nosey Pieterse is quoted as saying: "In the first 10 years of democracy, the wine industry grew tenfold, from 20m litres' output before 1994 to 220m litres." His figures are wrong: in fact South Africa exported 417m litres of wine in 2012. But, exports in wine do not always equal profits.

It is true that the minimum wage for South Africa's farm workers is low. It is up to the Government to address this, but boycotting products and damaging the livelihoods of vulnerable farm workers is not the solution. In the South African wine industry, we call for farm workers to be paid a living wage, not simply the minimum wage. The industry contributes an estimated ZAR27bn (US$3bn) to the South African economy and directly employs 275,000 people. These workers will be adversely affected if sales fall due to a boycott – a very likely outcome when wine farms are already battling against tough market conditions.

The article states: "Most [farmworkers] are not unionised, and many are illiterate and face the danger of eviction because they live on their employers' properties." This addresses something unique to the South African wine industry: The employer's responsibility to his workers. Many provide housing, electricity, water, transport, medical care, education and childcare, in addition to a wage. No other wine industry in the world faces the challenges South Africa does, or is expected to provide more than a salary.

It's fair to say that labour rights in South Africa are often poorly enforced; one aim of WIETA is to ensure South Africa's laws are properly implemented and that farm workers are aware of their rights, and employers too. We ask that consumers support the industry, so the efforts of WIETA, Fair Trade and all our producers can continue. The industry in South Africa is making huge strides to ensure workers are properly treated.

This comment piece initially appeared on The Guardian website today.


Sectors: Wine

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