South Africa’s wine trade body disputes slavery claims in vineyards

A recent documentary titled “Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the vineyards” produced by a Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann and shown on Swedish and Danish television, two of South Africa’s biggest wine export markets, shows the poor working conditions of South African farm workers. The film paints a picture of long working hours, which are in violation of labour laws. It also shows the workers as being exposed to toxic pesticides without any protection, squalor living conditions and unofficial use of the “dop system” – an apartheid-era arrangement in which workers are paid in alcohol rather than money.

Heinemann visited the Cape three times and filmed over a seven week period. The fallout from the documentary has prompted a Danish supermarket chain, Dagrofa to suspend sales of wines from Robertson winery, one of the wineries featured in the film and where workers are currently on strike over poor wages and demanding 150% increase for entry level wages.

Defending his company’s working conditions and practices, Anton Cilliers, CEO of Robertson Winery, said that many of the allegations leveled against his company in the documentary were false and had since been investigated by an independent third party auditor commissioned by Systembolaget – a government owned liquor chain in Sweden – which found the claims “unfounded and without substance”.

The South African wine industry body represented by VinPro condemned the documentary, calling it “biased, unbalanced and taken out of context”. It claimed that the reporting failed to look at both sides of the various issues, saying that the documentary chose to ignore the many reforms made by South Africa’s wine industry and threatens the progress made by the industry overseas.

The wine body said that in the past twenty years, South Africa had established The Wine & Agricultural Trade Association to improve conditions for workers, and raised ethical standards through the global FairTrade initiative. Currently, South Africa is the world’s foremost producer of FairTrade wines, producing 66% of all wine sold globally under FairTrade label.

We are disappointed that we were denied the opportunity to state our case or respond to allegations in a fair and conducive manner,” it added.

The filmmaker said the documentary will also be aired in Norway and an English version will be made to be aired in Britain.

My hope is that the documentary will create a debate among all stakeholders into how honest improvements can be made in the vineyards. As it is right now, much needs to be done,” he said.

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