Human Rights Watch Report Documents Worker Abuse in South Africa’s Wine Industry

By Carolyn Abdenour
Impunity Watch Reporter, Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) issued Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries, a 96-page report, describing unsafe working conditions for workers on vineyards that produce internationally renowned wines in South Africa. Based on 260 interviews with farm workers and owners, government officials, civil society members, lawyers, union officials, and industry representatives, the report encourages the government to respect labor laws.  Wine and fruit farms are valuable economic contributors to South Africa, the seventh-largest wine producer in the world.

Report document abuse of South Africas vineyard workers.  (Photo Coutesy of BBC)
Report document abuse of South Africa's vineyard workers. (Photo Coutesy of BBC)

The report states, “Workers also often have no access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, or toilets as required by labour regulations.” However, industry group Wines of South Africa (“WOSA”) believes the report is misleading and challenges the report’s accuracy.  WOSA feels the report undermines efforts to redress past wrongs and improve workers’ working and living conditions.  However, WOSA said they would investigate the study.

Su Birch, chief executive of WOSA, commented, “Ironically, [the report] could also jeopardise the jobs of the very people it claims to be championing.” Emphasizing workers compete with South Africa’s strong currency, face a global economic downturn, and lack of government support global competitors receive, she added “[WOSA] call[s] on government to partner the wine industry in accelerating reform and in rooting out problems.”

HRW reported although some farms comply or exceed the law regarding worker’s condition, the vineyard community lacks sufficient investigators to monitor worker’s conditions.

Although South Africa has strict labor laws, these farm workers are some of the lowest paid workers in the country with women receiving lower wages than men do.

Furthermore, a majority of the workers are casual or seasonal workers who are unaware of their rights.  These workers face difficulty joining labor groups to learn about their rights.  Many workers were victims of illegal evictions that the government did not criminally investigate.  According to the HRW report, workers are also subject to inadequate housing, and Kaitlin Cordes of HRW recalls speaking “to a worker who has been living in a pig stall with his family for more than 10 years.”

Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, encourages consumers “not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers” but rather urges retailers to push suppliers to amend workers’ conditions.

HRW stated, “Greater coordination within the government; more robust monitoring, resource allocation, and transparency; and clarity on responsibility for the millions of farm workers and dwellers in South Africa would go a long way towards ameliorating the intolerable abuses that they suffer.”

For further information, please see,
BBC South Africa wine grown by ‘abused’ workers23 Aug 2011
Harpers South African vineyards accused of human rights abuses23 Aug 2011
Mail & GuardianFruit of a poisoned vine23 Aug 2011
Reuters Africa HRW alleges abuses in S. African wine industry23 Aug 2011

Author: Impunity Watch Archive