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Not all doom and gloom in SA’s wine industry

| Wine and liquor

Recent depictions in the media of the South African wine industry as being rife with injustices are disappointing. The industry has made significant economic and social progress since joining global markets and has committed to achieving transformation and social development targets.

There is still a long row to hoe, but this is a journey that the industry and its stakeholders have embraced.

Danish journalist Tom Heinemann highlighted the social ills in a recent documentary with the unfortunate and highly emotive title — Bitter Grapes: Slavery in the Vineyards. His account of atrocities in the wine industry aired in Denmark and Sweden, resulting in some South African wines being removed from retail stores in Denmark.

An investigation by labour experts, commissioned by VinPro, showed that notable inaccuracies were reported, particularly pertaining to claims about worker wages, dismissals, deductions and housing.

While Heinemann visited a fraction of the Cape winelands several times, his account is not an accurate reflection on transformation made in the wine industry since 1994, nor does it appreciate the historical context and evolution of the issues we face. His commentary is damaging to government and industry efforts attending the significant challenges we face, while the threat of loss of market share does not benefit wine producers or employees.

The South African wine industry currently produces 4.1% of the world’s wine and is the eighth largest producer of wine. It contributes R36bn to SA’s GDP, creating employment for about 290,000 people. It has also made SA an attractive wine tourism destination.

Through the wine industry strategic exercise that started in 2014, the industry has collaboratively committed to sustainability plans to benefit all stakeholders. This is on the back of R38.3m invested in social development programmes in 2014.

This has been spent on skills training and development, child education and development, rehabilitation programmes and enterprise development.

The industry has supported 52 black empowered businesses — representing more than 2,500ha and 37 black-owned wine brands.

There have been significant shifts, particularly over the past five years. One of the most notable was the introduction of several multi stakeholder platforms with representation from the wine industry, labour and in some cases, the government.

These include the Cape Wine Auction, Laborie Discussion Forum, Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (Wieta) and the Wine Industry Value Chain Round Table. These platforms can be used by all workers to address issues.

We want consumers of South African wine to feel the comfort that workers have been paid a decent wage, that children are supported, labour protected and that the wines they enjoy have contributed to a better life, rather than entrench our worst social evils.

A significant part of our industry exceeds industry standards. This is partly why 75% of Fairtrade wine sold in the global market is from SA. Membership of Wieta continues to grow — from 165 in 2012 to 1,123 in 2016 — representing close to 700,000 tonnes, or 50%, of SA’s total wine production. There are 769 wines carrying the Wieta seal.

The challenges we face are not unique to the wine industry or to farming communities. Agricultural wages are at the lower end of the spectrum and the provision of housing and other infrastructure services is a concern, but these are broader South African challenges and part of a journey that we face as a country and industry.

The wine industry has a zero tolerance approach to payment for labour with alcohol and will support the conviction of any wine grape producers or cellars found guilty of such abhorrent practices. As an industry, we take part ownership of the social ills caused by alcohol abuse and will strengthen efforts to stop it.

Programmes such as those initiated by the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use assist with the rehabilitation of victims and help children affected by abuse.

Heinemann’s portrayal of irresponsible use of agro-chemicals on wine farms is regrettable. Only accredited chemicals are permitted and this is closely monitored by industry bodies such as Wieta and the Integrated Production of Wine.

All farm workers administering crop protection products are required to be properly trained, which includes the appropriate use of protective clothing such as masks, gloves and gumboots. Occupational health and safety legislation is very clear about these protocols. We have instituted additional safety measures through regular and unannounced audits.

The provision of housing on farms is complex and cannot simply be attributed to farmers not providing housing, water and sanitary facilities. The analysis in Heinemann’s documentary is rather simplistic. It fails to appreciate the historic and political context as well as the unintended consequences of recent legislation affecting security of tenure on farms.

While the image of the typical wine farm is rather glamorous, the average return on investment in wine grape production is a meagre 2%. VinPro’s annual assessment of the industry found that only a third of the wine industry is profitable. Such nuances go unnoticed in the documentary and, regrettably, appear to attribute the provision of housing and services to prejudiced farmers lacking in basic human compassion.

Organisations such as the Global Social Compliance Programme have been helpful in assisting the industry to benchmark against best international practice, raising the bar on social and environmental protocols while helping wine consumers make the best ethical choices.

One of the issues raised by Heinemann is the state of labour relations on wine farms. South African workers are very well protected by the Constitution and legislation such as the Labour Relations Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act. We have made significant progress to improve monitoring and enforcement.

The industry bodies support the principle of constructive workplace engagement and encourage ongoing honest and transparent negotiations between employers and employees on matters of mutual interest. The right to join a trade union is globally recognised.

Industry bodies will act against offenders, but will seek to assist farmers through a developmental and corrective approach, if appropriate, to protect jobs and support growth. Where offences are severe, the law will take its course. To suggest an adversarial relationship between farm owners and the unions, as a matter of course, is simply not accurate.

Slow economic growth has stymied transformation efforts. However, the industry has set itself clear and challenging targets in the next 10 years to broaden ownership, support new enterprises, grow talent in the wine sector, and be a more significant player in improving the plight of workers through growth and the will to do what’s right for our industry, our people, our economy and our country.

Compliance is the minimum expectation. Real and meaningful change comes when we move beyond compliance to embrace the spirit of the law rather than its letter.

Many producers who can afford it, pay way above the minimum wage. Our development plan moves beyond employing more workers in the sector. We aim to create appealing careers to inspire young people, particularly those living on farms. This will help create the next generation of specialists and artisans.

As an industry we will always strive to do more, and to that we remain committed. However, the issues we face can’t be solved alone. We can only improve conditions in collaboration with the government, trade unions, civil society, our local and international partners as well as wine consumers who expect progress.

The South African wine industry is on a journey with key stakeholders. We know that our supporters are with us and will not be distracted by opportunistic commentary that does not appreciate the historic context, current realities, ambitious transformation and development plans we’ve set for social and environmental sustainability.

• Basson is CEO of VinPro and Thompson is CEO of Wines of South Africa.

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