SA: Wines of South Africa chief hits back at "biased" human rights study

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The CEO of Wines of South Africa has criticised claims of worker abuse in the country's wine industry as misjudged, unsubstantiated and biased.


Human Rights Watch has today (23 August) accused a number of vineyard owners in South Africa of failing in their duty of care towards workers. In its report, entitled 'Ripe with Abuse', the charity cited interviews with workers, employers and government officials. 

It claimed that some vineyard workers are not given adequate housing, lack access to drinking water, are unnecessarily exposed to pesticides and are subject to summary evictions. The claims today drew a strong reaction from South Africa's wine industry trade body, Wines of South Africa (WoSA).

Su Birch, WoSA's CEO, accused Human Rights Watch of bias by attempting to conjure a false image of the country's wine sector with largely unsubstantiated, anecdotal evidence. “Readers of the report have no basis for understanding how representative the sample of respondents is," Birch said, in a four-page rebuttal of the study.

She said: “Let me make it very clear: we condemn out of hand any and all human rights abuses on wine farms. Our disappointment in the bias of the report is in no way an indication of our support for inhumane practices.

“In the interests of the continuity of the industry and its capacity to create employment and sustainably improved working conditions, the wine sector deserves to be monitored with fairness and not to be undermined by assertions based on what appears to be random anecdotal evidence."

However, while WoSA is adamant that abuse of workers rights is nowhere near endemic in the industry, it remains concerned about the potential damage that isolated incidences could cause to the image of South African wine overseas. On Twitter today, Birch said: "But let's learn from it. We need to ensure our house is 100% in order. We have real positives but one abuse can wreck it all."   

Human Rights Watch, whose report also covered fruit farms in South Africa, did not call for a boycott of the country's produce. Instead, it called on retailers and authorities to monitor supply chains more closely.

WoSA's Birch sits on the board of South Africa's Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), which has been active since 2002. So far in 2011, WIETA has already increased membership by 29% on 2010. In addition, South Africa has more Fairtrade certified wine producers than any other wine producer nation, according to WoSA.

For just-drinks comment on the Human Rights Watch claims, click here.

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