South African wineries continue to insist the farmworkers' strikes have nothing to do with them, despite repeated union calls for further strikes and boycotts.
‘Calm’: Robertson Winery
South Africa’s biggest union, Cosatu, has warned the strikes in the agricultural sector over pay and conditions, which flared up before and after Christmas causing three deaths, could ignite again as some farms had sacked striking workers.
The strikes have so far centred on fruit farms and table grape farms, but they ‘have everything to do with the wine sector,’ Nosey Pieterse, secretary general of the Black Workers’ Agricultural Sector Union (Bawusa), told Decanter.com.
Pieterse, who claims 10,000 members for Bawusa of which 20-30% are wine workers, has called for an international boycott of South African fruit and wine, as have other prominent leader, including ANC representatives.
Pieterse said he had research which pointed to unrest and dissatisfaction on 65 farms producing wine grapes.
‘These strikes have everything to do with wine,’ he said. ‘The point is, what are the conditions for wine workers, how much are they earning, how much are they paying for transport, how much are they paying for electricity?’
As harvest starts in South Africa, Decanter.com has not found a single wine producer who has experienced unrest amongst workers. All are reporting calm conditions for the beginning of harvest; they also say attempted intimidation of their workers by ‘bussed in’ strikers has not worked.
‘It’s more about the seasonal workers trying to intimidate the wine workers,’ Bowen Botha, managing director of the 2000ha Robertson Winery, a former co-op of 40 wine producers, told Decanter.com.
‘It’s a bit unclear who organised it but we know strikers were bussed in from Cape Town, before and just after Christmas.’
Botha said the unions had planned ‘a big strike’ in Robertson two weeks ago at which only a handful of strikers turned up. He said, ‘we foresee no problem at all with harvest. Everything is calm.’
He also said that as a member of Wieta, the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Initiative, his farms were regularly audited.
At Elgin Ridge winery in Elgin, owner Marion Smith said some workers had been prevented from coming to work during the strikes but now all was quiet. ‘We don’t foresee any trouble for harvest.’
She said however that while calls for a boycott did not worry boutique wineries such as theirs, ‘if we were supplying a big supermarket we might worry, as their customers might support the strikes without really understanding what they are about.’
Mike Ratcliffe at Warwick Wine Estate in Stellenbosch blamed the government, which he accuses of populism and unable ‘to create an atmosphere conducive to sound industrial relations’.
‘Poor interaction and ridiculous populist statements by the ministers of labour and agriculture have been critical in fanning the flames of discontent,’ he said, deploring the ‘smearing’ of an industry which is ‘possibly the most aware in the world when it comes to racism, inequality and the impact that these can have on their ability to perform optimally.’
Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, repeated her insistence there is no unrest amongst the 250,000-plus workers in the South African wine industry.
As for a boycott of South African wine, she said the supermarkets in the UK were ‘enormously supportive’ of Wieta and the reforms it underpinned.
Pieterse told Decanter.com the boycott is ‘definitely going to have an effect. It has the support of the international community.’ He claimed journalists in Sweden had expressed support.
UK supermarkets have not so far commented to Decanter.com on their attitude to a possible boycott of South African wine, but Giles Bolton, Tesco director of ethical trading, told the Guardian the company had an ‘ethical buying hub’ in South Africa to keep tabs on suppliers’ treatment of their staff. He also said he recognised South Africa was ‘very little unionised’ and that a ‘more mature industrial relations atmosphere’ would be helpful.
Written by Adam Lechmere