GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – South African vineyards and fruit farms are accused in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) of abusing their workers who, it says, are some of the worst-paid workers in the country.
Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries,” was published Tuesday 23 August by HRW.
The head of Wines of South Africa (Wosa), Su Birch, reacted to the report, saying in a Wosa statement that it is biased: “She said the 96-page report, purporting to accurately document conditions on farms, had used a questionable basis for the selection of many of the respondents interviewed in the study, while interviews with workers had not been independently verified and nor had employer reaction to allegations been sought. As a result, it was extremely difficult to respond to specific allegations highlighted by the study.”
The report, she added, “disingeneously plays down the significance of the wine industry`s substantial direct and indirect contribution to improving working conditions through organisations such as the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), and Fairtrade. It also makes scant mention of empowerment initiatives. With positive examples of the progress made in redressing past wrongs rendered virtually inaccessible to all but the most serious readers, the report negates the work of those who should be allowed to stand out as role models to their peers.”
The report, HRW says in its press release, “documents conditions that include on-site housing that is unfit for living, exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment, lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working” and they are often prevented from forming unions.
The Western Cape area, with six of the country’s nine wine-producing regions, receives the most damning criticism. South Africa has laws to protect farm workers, the report notes, but monitoring is inadequate. The South African government is aware of the problems, it argues, since its own human rights commission filed reports in 2003 and 2008 laying out the problems, but little action was taken to redress the situation.
The situation varies from one grower to another, according to HRW, which asks consumers not to boycott South African fruit and wine, but rather to press suppliers to show that the conditions of their sources meet legal standards. A boycott could result in workers being out of work, it notes.
“Conditions on farms vary, and not all farmworkers with whom Human Rights Watch spoke had encountered rights abuses. In a small number of cases, farmworkers and farm owners described full compliance with the law as well as a variety of positive practices by employers that went beyond the legally requirements. Some farmers give workers land to grow their own crops, pay the full cost of medical visits, provide free food to workers in the winter, or have set up trusts that benefit farmworkers. Farmers who provided these benefits to farmworkers noted that these efforts can be profitable.”
The US and Germany are the largest importers of South African wine, according to HRW.