A Living Wage Does Not Build a Wine Industry

The often vocal liberal wine commentators have been pretty quiet about the new daily wage for farm-workers recently announced by the Department of Labour. When said Department last week stated that the minimum remuneration for a day’s farmyard toil had risen to R128.26 from last year’s equally dismal R120.32 I expected all hell to break loose among the Pinko wine fraternity so keen to deploy enraged social commentary on supposed farmworker exploitation once the glasses of old vine Cinsault and skin-fermented orange Clairette Blanche has dried up.

But the lefty western front is quiet, analyzing the effects of drought and fire on the industry while updating themselves on the offerings of latest Bree Street tapas bars that still have working air-conditioners.

I am as concerned about these paltry wages paid to farmworkers as anybody else – for nine hours’ toiling in the hot sun the worker takes home what it costs me to order an appetizer at a Cape Town eatery. It is not good, and it is surely not right.

The real bad news, however, is that the wine industry is – as the rest of agriculture – mechanizing at a rate of hydraulic knots. Mechanical harvesting is being increasingly used in most regions, and on massive scale. Wineries are replacing manual punch-downs with open-tank mechanics. Cellars that once relied on a staff of 25 are now handling 400 tons of grapes a day with six people.

Suddenly the pay of R128.26 a day is starting to look okay, because you have to be increasingly lucky to get it.

This has led to aforementioned concerned commentators expressing dismay at the mechanical harvesting happening in South Africa as the greedy machines eat employment opportunities. Teary-eyed, some producers state that they use hand-harvesting to ensure jobs and by stopping the tide of mechanization they are doing their bit social up-liftment.

As if paying a couple of contract workers R128.26 a day for three months during harvest has earned you a halo.

Fact of the matter is, we need a mechanized society to create a society of skilled workers earning sustainable wages instead of continuing to be a wine industry dependent on the desperate, hopeless hands of the poorest-of-the poor. A decisive move to further mechanization and eradicating a wave of rural communities stuck in a hopeless and perpetual ragged hand-to-mouth existence is not doing anything to uplifting anyone. Nor is it having a positive influence on the image of the wine industry.

Too many rural working class people are dependent on an industry that cannot sustain them and their future generations. By cutting the umbilical cord of dependence on menial, basic wage jobs and moving to a modern, mechanized industry where there is only room for skilled, better-paid employees will hasten the shift to mentorship and better outlooks than is currently the case for people caught in the degrading swirl of defeatist and disempowering rural poverty.

The sooner it is done, the better.

– Emile Joubert

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3 thoughts on “A Living Wage Does Not Build a Wine Industry

  1. As a foreigner (Brit; don’t blame me, I can’t help it) I’m not sure I should be commenting here on the politics of this issue.

    So on the related issue, are you in the camp that sees machine harvesting of grapes just as good or better than hand harvesting?

    Some places say hand harvesting is far superior and they boast on the label their wines are from hand harvested grapes.

  2. Hi Peter. Thanks for your comment. I have no reason to believe that machine-harvested grapes are inferior. Not as romantic, sure, but with modern technology quality is right up there. See top SA estates like Jordan and De Wetshof using machines, and making incredible top-end wines.

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