South African vineyards accused of human rights abuses

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An investigation into human rights abuses in South African vineyards has revealed some workers are forced to live in pig sties and don’t have access to safety equipment or basic labour rights.


But while Wines of South Africa condemned any abuses outright, it said it was disappointed in the “biased” report, which could damage the industry.


The 96-page report by Human Rights Watch documents conditions in the Western Cape region showing workers and their families living in pig sties, being exposed to pesticides, having no access to toilets or drinking water while working, and being blocked from forming unions.


“The wealth and well-being these workers produce shouldn’t be rooted in human misery,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, which produced the report “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries”. “The government, and the industries and farmers themselves, need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms,” he added.


The UK is one of the biggest importers of South African wine, but Bekele urged consumers “not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers”. He called on retailers to press suppliers about working conditions on farms.


Su Birch, chief executive of Wines of South Africa, stressed that the report had the potential to do great harm to the industry that was already battling in the face of a strong rand and a protracted global economic downturn, without the benefit of the government support that its global competitors enjoyed. “Ironically, it could also jeopardise the jobs of the very people it claims to be championing,” she added.


She challenged the report, saying it 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 authors stated that it was based on interviews in 2010 and 2011 with “over 260 people, including 117 current or former farmworkers and an additional 16 farm dwellers.”


She added that the report “plays down the significance” of the wine industry’s contribution to improving working conditions through the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association and Fairtrade, and makes “scant mention” of empowerment initiatives.

Birch said: “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.


“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. It expresses our concern that trade and consumers all over the world could become alienated from South African wines. We call on government to partner the wine industry in accelerating reform and in rooting out problems.”

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