SA wine industry hits back at human rights abuse claims

The South African wine industry has attacked the “questionable” methods used by Human Rights Watch in its damning assessment of the way workers are treated in the country’s wine farms.

The 96-page report says that workers in Western Cape province are low paid, and are “denied adequate housing, proper safety equipment, and basic labour rights”.

It claims that in some cases, “on-site housing that is unfit for living”, there is “exposure to pesticides without proper safety equipment”, and a “lack of access to toilets or drinking water while working”.

“The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms.”

But Su Birch, chief executive of Wines of South Africa, challenged the findings.

She said: “Readers of the report have no basis for understanding how representative the sample of respondents is. The study relies on anecdotal evidence that uses the cover of respondent protection to avoid substantiating the claims it makes.”

She added that Human Rights Watch’s press release about the report “does not present a sufficiently comprehensive picture of conditions across the wine industry and as a result, is potentially misleading”. 

“Like the report itself, the release disingenuously 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 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.”