Exotic fruits and world-class wine labeled from South Africa are popular in the European market. More and more wineries claim that their wine is grown and harvested in conditions that conform to human right norms and fair labor practices; however, reports from NGO’s such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) and The South African Human Rights Commission allege the opposite.
South Africa is the seventh largest wine-producing country in the world. The country’s vineyards are concentrated primarily in Western Cape, known as the “Paradise of South Africa,” a province internationally recognized for its vast wine production. Six of South Africa’s nine wine regions are located there.
South Africa’s emerging wine export industry accounts for 2.2% of the country’s GDP and generates over $3 billion a year for the South African economy. In 2009, the export value for wine in Western Cape reached $700 million US dollars. According to the South African Wine Information and Systems, the wine industry supports employment opportunities to over 275,000 workers, most of whom are unskilled (58%).
A recent report by HRW indicates that despite the fact that wine is a profitable industry in South Africa, farmworkers in Western Cape reap little benefit from the flourish in business and rather suffer human rights abuses at the hands of farmers, including uninhabitable living conditions, illegal evictions, and exposure to chemicals and pesticides.
Living conditions unfit for human habitation
In August 2011, HRW published a comprehensive report entitled, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries, which includes 260 testimonies from Western Cape’s farmers. (See REPORT: Ripe With Abuse, Human Rights Watch, August 2011) Sinah B.’s testimony is one of them. She revealed that the farm’s security guards, in an attempt to drive families away, threatened her and her children with dogs and guns in the middle of the night.
“They came at night at 1 or 2 in the morning; slammed on doors, took children over 18 who didn’t work here to the police station… Security would come with dogs and guns at night. It happened a lot of times … [about] three times a week for two to three years.” (HRW report, pg. 52)
40 year old Isaak S. worked on the same farm for a decade. During this time, he and his family lived in a pig stall, which has remained unchanged since he moved to the farm – with no toilet or improvements to the condition of the stall. (HRW report, pg. 46)
Sol C. tells a similar story. He worked the farm for nearly 20 years until he became disabled in 2010. Evicted from shacks numerous times following his accident, he and his wife eventually moved into one of the farm’s outhouses. Landowners simply covered the toilet holes and he and his wife have remained there ever since.
These stories illustrate the biggest problem that South Africa’s land laborers face: access to safe, stable housing, which is a basic human right recognized in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). As Article 25 of the UDHR states, “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
In addition to living in very poor conditions, farmworkers also face the constant threat of illegal evictions.
Between 1994-2004, more than 930,000 farmworkers – including dwellers – were evicted from their farms, despite the fact that laws exist that are meant to protect farmworkers from being illegally and unfairly removed from their homes.
In a documentary entitled, “Beneath the Surface, Fruit and Wine Workers in the Western Cape,” Siphokazi Mthathi of HRW reports on the living conditions of the region’s land laborers. Though inhabitable housing and the harassment are well documented by the government and NGO’s, little efforts have been made by the South African government to curb these illegal activities or strengthen current laws.
To evict a farmworker, the farmer must follow specific regulations stated in the Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA), which also defines who qualifies as a farmworkers. For example, the ESTA outlines specific situations where a farmworker may not be evicted. Specifically, “[a] long term occupier is someone who has resided on a farm for more than 10 years and is over 60 years of age or who cannot provide labour to a land owner as a result of ill health, disability or injury. Long term occupiers’ rights of residence may not be terminated unless they have:
1. intentionally and unlawfully harmed any other person occupying the land, 2. intentionally damaged property of a farmer engaged in behaviour which threatens others occupying the land, 4. assisted other unauthorised people to establish new dwellings on the farm, 5. breached a condition or term of their residence with which they are able to comply, but have not done so despite being given one month’s notice to comply. (For example: when an occupier allows unauthorised people to reside with them) 6. such a fundamental breach of the relationship between the farmer and themselves that it is not possible to restore this relationship. (For examaple: if the farm worker assaults the farmer.)” (See A Guide to Tenure Security Rights on Farms, pg. 4)
In South Africa, farm dwellers also have the right to due process under the law before they are evicted. Procedurally, in order for a landowner to legally evict a farmer, the landowner is require to warn the workers and deliver an eviction order to the court. Any attempts to evict are illegal without the court order. However, according to HRW, less than 1% of farm worker evictions are done so legally.
According to the HRW report, many landowners have found illegitimate, but unfortunately effective, methods to evict farm dwellers. By blocking electricity or cutting of the water supply, landowners can easily drive farmworker away. Others simply allow new workers to move in without providing an eviction notice to the current resident farm worker. Despite the fact that these eviction methods are illegal, they have become the norm because South African authorities by and large do not enforce the law and landowners in violation of eviction laws are not sanctioned.
As an ESTA inspector explained in the HRW report:
“If I lose my job here today, I still have a place to stay and so does my wife. If a farmworker loses his job today, he loses his place to stay and so does his family.”
Health and safety concerns
Lack of access to safe and secure housing is not the only hurdle South African farmworkers encounter. Testimony gathered in HRW reports show that farmworkers also face health and safety threats in the workplace.
According to HRW, most of the farms in Western Cape do not provide drinking water or toilet facilities on or near the fields. Furthermore, farm workers are regularly exposed to injurious pesticides without proper safety equipment, which causes rashes and even acute intoxication. Despite the fact that the South African Occupational Health and Safety Act promulgates that workers should be provided with “suitable respiratory protective equipment and protective clothing,” many farm workers in Western Cape continue to be exposed to health hazardous poisons and chemicals. These farm dwellers allege that they have developed conditions such as asthma and chest pain as a result of direct contact with these pesticides.
Recent developments and responses to HRW’s report
According to a November 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Becoming Truly South African,” Professor Solms, a neuroscientist turned wine maker, explains that the HRW report only represents the minority of South African farmworkers. He explains, “The most important thing for people in our industry to face up to is that what the Human Rights Watch report describes is happening. But it is not the norm, nor the average situation. What I would say is that it is a minority. That is not to excuse it. There is no excuse.”
In order to help break the cycle of extreme poverty among farmworkers, Solms, along with Richard Astor, created a trust for their farmworkers, which was funded by the winery’s profits. The trust pays for housing, education, health care and music lessons for the workers and can be used as a model for other wineries. (See Becoming Truly South African, Nov. 11, 2011, WSJ.com)
In October 2011, Andries Burger, member of the Cape’s Winemaker’s Guild, told the Financial Times that despite the fact that even one report of human rights abuse against farmworkers is too many,, the HRW’s decision to maintain the anonymity of the wineries in question raises concerns because it does not allow for actions to be taken against wineries that treat their workers poorly. As Burger explains, “the problem is that not naming the farms in question has been counterproductive, because how can we rectify it? Let’s name and shame, I say.”
According to the Financial Times, HRW’s reasoning for keeping the identity of offending wineries confidential is as follows:
“Human Rights Watch said it did not want to name or locate its informants for fear of reprisals, and would not even specify which of their more horrific reported examples were wine rather than fruit farms. This, unfortunately, has given those too complacent or mean to bring their workers’ living conditions into even the 20th century, as well as the Western Cape government, the perfect excuse for continued inaction.” (See Cleaning Up the Cape, Oct. 21, 2011, The Financial Times)
Finally, Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa, which is responsible for the promotion of all South African wine in export markets, claims that the HRW report is bias. According to The Guardian, Birch stated that “most of the farm workers interviewed were identified by unions and NGOs, who have a vested interest in presenting the worst of cases.” (See South African wine industry rooted in human misery, says report. The Guardian, Aug. 22, 2011)
While she admits that some farmworkers live in poor conditions, she maintains that it is a small group that is not representative of the entire South African wine industry.
“For every poor house on a farm, I can show you loads of good ones and some exceptional ones. Wine farmers are currently providing housing for over 200,000 workers, which represents an investment of billions of rands. Our industry is working hard to correct the wrongs of the past, and we accept that there is much work to be done. Even one case of abuse is one too many. But ‘ripe with abuse’? I don’t think so.” (See South African wine industry rooted in human misery, says report. The Guardian, Aug. 22, 2011)
Decide for yourself! For more information, please read the following:
Becoming Truly South African, The Wall Street Journal, November 2011
REPORT: Ripe With Abuse, Human Rights Watch, August 2011
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