Magazine article New African

Sour Grapes: South Africa Is One of the Largest Wine-Producing Countries in the World. Exports Have Boomed over the Last 10 Years, and Have Risen from 174 Million Litres in 2001 to 350 Million in 2011. the Cape Winelands-The Wine District of the Western Cape Province-Is One of the Wealthiest Areas of South Africa, but the Workers Hardly Get a Living Wage

Magazine article New African

Sour Grapes: South Africa Is One of the Largest Wine-Producing Countries in the World. Exports Have Boomed over the Last 10 Years, and Have Risen from 174 Million Litres in 2001 to 350 Million in 2011. the Cape Winelands-The Wine District of the Western Cape Province-Is One of the Wealthiest Areas of South Africa, but the Workers Hardly Get a Living Wage

Article excerpt

IT IS EARLY MORNING, AND I AM sitting on the curb of a small square in Languedoc, a hamlet between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek in the middle of South Africa's wine-growing region. I have been told that this is the place to be if I want to observe the real lives of South African seasonal workers.

Different groups of people are standing or sitting around me. They are waiting to be picked up and taken to their work at one of the surrounding vineyards where the grape harvest is in full swing.

Most of the men are dressed in blue overalls while the women wear blue housecoats. As a white truck pulls into the square, about 15 men stand up and walk towards the road. The side door swings open and I can see at least 20 people sitting on the floor of the cargo area. The men climb into the truck and the door is locked. The vehicle is now completely sealed; there are no open windows or ventilation grilles. As the truck drives off, I'm thinking about those 35 people and what it must be like to be thrown about at the first corner in that pitch-black cargo space. Soon, outside that vehicle, the road winds into the hills that are covered with wine tendrils and long avenues leading up to the stately, white mansions built in the Cape Dutch style. This is a very scenic landscape.

Each year, this industry has a turnover of almost $8 billion. Yet you see very little of that wealth in evidence there on the small square in Languedoc and, despite enormous profits, the wages of the 40,000 agricultural labourers are amongst the lowest in the country. "Although profits have risen for the companies over the past few years, the workers have in no way benefited from this", confirms Anthony Dietrich of South Africa Wine Industry Trust, an organisation committed to reforms in this industry.

South African wine is popular around the globe. According to the latest available data, for 2011, the country is the eighth largest wine producing country in the world, exporting over 357m litres a year. The top live markets for packaged South African wine are, in descending order, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and the US.

The South African wine industry is now coming under pressure. In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report on the poor working conditions of seasonal workers resulted in protests that ultimately culminated in violent strikes by the end of 2012. The strikers demanded that the legal minimum daily rate of R69 ($6.85) should be more than doubled to 150 rands ($15) a day. By way of comparison, $67 a day is paid for the same work in France.

"It's too easy to blame the farmers," says Pieter, who does not want to give his full name. He has a small farm and employs a number of permanent and seasonal workers. "I'd like to pay them higher wages but I don't know how. As a small-scale farmer, I don't have a say in the matter. My customers offer me a price for my grapes and I have to just take it or leave it."

If, in accordance with the strikers' demands, the wages were to be raised to $15 a day, the sector's expenses would increase by some 53 per cent. A recent report by the South African Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) reveals that--from a business viewpoint--labour-intensive wine farms would simply be unable to defray these costs. …

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