Fixing SA Wine: No One Said it Was Going to be Easy

Rico Basson and Siobhan Thompson, CEO’s of VinPro and Wosa respectively, write about the troubled journey that is South African wine. 

Recent depictions in the media of the South African wine industry as being rife with injustices are indeed disappointing. Our industry has made significant economic and social progress since joining global markets and has committed itself to achieving transformation and social development targets. There’s 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. The documentary giving his account of atrocities in the wine industry aired in Denmark and Sweden – and resulted in some South African wines being removed from retail stores in Denmark.

An investigation by labour experts, commissioned by VinPro, revealed that the documentary contained notable inaccuracies, particularly pertaining to claims about workers’ wages, dismissals, deductions and housing. As Heinemann visited only a fraction of the Cape winelands a few times, we don’t believe his account is an accurate reflection of the transformation that has occurred in the wine industry since 1994, nor does it show an understanding of its historical context and evolution of the issues we face. His commentary is damaging to government and industry efforts that address the significant challenges we face, while the threat of loss of market share benefits neither wine producers nor employees.

The South African wine industry currently produces 4.1% of the world’s wine and we are the eighth largest producer of wine globally. The industry contributes R36 billion to our GDP, creating employment for about 290 000 people. The wine industry has also made South Africa an attractive wine tourism destination.


Through the Wine Industry Strategic Exercise – an initiative that was launched in 2014 – the wine industry is collaboratively committed to sustainability plans to benefit all stakeholders.  This includes investment in social development programmes to the tune of R38.3 million in 2014 alone. This money has been spent on skills training and development, child education and development, after-care facilities for children to help working moms, rehabilitation programmes and enterprise development. We’re proud of the 52 black empowered businesses – representing more than 2 500 hectares – and 37 black-owned wine brands that our industry has supported.

There have been significant shifts, particularly over the past five years. One of the most notable has been the introduction of several multi-stakeholder platforms, with representation from the wine industry, labour and, in some cases, 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 utilised by all workers to address issues in a safe and fair manner.

We want consumers of South African wines to feel reassured that workers in the industry are paid a decent wage, their children are supported and their labour is protected, and that the wines they enjoy have contributed to a better life for workers, rather than entrenched 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 derived from South Africa. This is an achievement of which we are proud. Membership of WIETA continues to grow – from 165 in 2012 to 1123 in 2016 – and already represents close on 700 000 ton or 50% of South Africa’s total wine production. A total of 769 wines carry 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 are 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 supports 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 our efforts to stop it.

Programmes such as those initiated by the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) helps with the rehabilitation of victims and children affected by alcohol abuse. We have made steady progress thanks to cooperation from industry players.

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

All farm workers who administer crop protection products are required to receive proper training. This includes training in the appropriate use of protective clothing such as masks, gloves and gumboots. The occupational health and safety legislation is very clear about these protocols. In addition we have also 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 applied in Heinemann’s documentary is somewhat simplistic. It fails to appreciate the historic and political context and the unintended consequences of recent legislation affecting security of tenure on farms.

While the image of the typical wine farm is 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 indeed profitable.

Such nuances go unmentioned in the documentary, which regrettably appears to attribute the provision of housing and services to prejudiced farmers lacking in basic human compassion.

Global organisations such as the Global Social Compliance Programme (GSCP) have helped 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. Thankfully South African workers are well protected by legislation such as the Constitution, Labour Relations Act and Occupational Health and Safety Act. This legislation is comprehensive and well-intended, and we have made significant progress to improve monitoring and enforcement.


The aforementioned 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. While industry bodies act against offenders, they also seek to help farmers through a developmental and corrective approach, if appropriate, to protect jobs and support growth. Where offences are severe the law takes its course.

To suggest an adversarial relationship between farm owners and the unions, as a matter of course, is simply inaccurate. Slow economic growth has stymied transformation efforts. However the industry has set itself clear and challenging targets over the next 10 years to broaden ownership, support new enterprises and grow talent in the wine sector, and improve the plight of workers through growth and doing 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. For instance, many producers who can afford it pay way above the minimum wage. That’s encouraging. Our development plan moves beyond employing more workers in the sector. We aim to create appealing careers in this sector to inspire young people, particularly those living on farms. This will help create the next generation of specialists and artisans. As an industry we 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 government, trade unions, civil society, our local and international partners and wine consumers who expect progress.

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

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