Where are your ethical standards, South African farm workers ask European wine monopolies

Farm workers in vineyards in the Western Cape, who work and live in atrocious conditions, staged a march to the embassies of Norway and Sweden. State-owned monopolies in these countries buy the bulk of the produce from these farms

September 24, 2019 by Pavan Kulkarni
South African farm workers protest
Agricultural workers in Western Cape, are urging the European wine monopolies to push for the enforcement of ethical labor codes in South Africa, to alleviate their slave-like conditions of work and housing.

Farm workers in Western Cape, South Africa marched to the embassies of Norway and Sweden to demand the redressal of the inhumane conditions in which they live and work at the vineyards in the region. The produce from these vineyards is imported largely by the state-owned wine monopolies of the two Scandanavian countries.The protesters were organized under the banner of the Commercial Stevedore Agriculture and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU).

The farm workers, who toil under the diktats of large farm owners, are underpaid and live in unhealthy conditions, while also facing threats of illegal eviction. They have demanded that the ethical codes that bind the European buyers be enforced on the South African farmers to prevent the violation of their rights.

They also sought pressure on the South African farmers and the government to ensure that the farm workers – men and women alike – are paid a living wage, the piecework payment system and labor brokers are abolished, and farm workers are made permanent employees.

Along with the provision of decent housing conditions, the CSAAWU has also demanded a moratorium on evictions, which the current president Cyril Ramaphosa had promised in 2014.

This demand has been addressed to three major wine monopolies – the Systembolaget of Sweden, Vinmonopolet of Norway and the Alko in Finland. All of them are state-owned, with an exclusive right to sell wine in their respective countries. A major portion of their raw material is sourced from vineyards in Western Cape.

Ethical codes prescribed by the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), Fair Trade, Fair for Life and AMFORI-BSCI are applicable to all farms that supply their produce to these companies. 

However, the CSAAWU has complained that these codes remain only on paper. In reality, the farm owners, on whose land they labor, systematically get away with the prolonged ill-treatment of farm workers, in ways that violate both the domestic and international laws, in addition to the ethical codes.

“The various ethical standards boards have been around for years and years, and yet have failed to hold farmers accountable.. Instead, farmers are given chance after chance with no consequences. In the rare occasions where accreditation has been suspended, this information has not been made public and wine sales continue as usual.. These labels and ethical accreditation help to improve the brand reputation of these wines. Only farmers benefit from ethical standard boards, not farm workers,” said Trevor Christians, the general secretary of CSAAWU.

The farm workers are paid a mere R18 (about USD 1.21) per hour. Women, who do the same work as men, are often paid even lower. Payments are mostly adjusted based on piecework. Thus, if no work can take place due to contingencies like bad weather and rain, the workers are sent back without any pay. 

They are also forced to handle toxic pesticides without any protective clothing. Even the houses in which they live on the farms are “equivalent to pigsties”, the CSAAWU statement proclaimed.

Even this low standard housing does not come with a tenure security. Millions of farm workers have been illegally evicted, along with their families, at the landowners’ whims.

Once evicted, they often find themselves living in make-shift shanties in informal settlements, with no security of tenure, and no access to water or electricity.

“Statistics from 2001 to 2004 show 1 million farm workers were evicted. I suspect the total could have doubled [by now].. Evictions [take place] on a daily basis,” CSAAWU’s national organizer, Karal Swart, told Peoples Dispatch.

With a deep-rooted legacy of slavery in the region, generations of agricultural workers, born and raised on the farms in Western Cape, have toiled in inhumane conditions for their whole lives in exchange for a pittance.

Acknowledging the vulnerability of farm workers in an economy shaped by slavery and apartheid, numerous provisions have been put in place to protect them.

The Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) 1997, provides that no occupier of a land can be evicted without a formal court order. However, given the inaction of the state against illegal evictions, procuring a court order is an effort rarely made by the farm owners who regularly evict workers at will. 

The ESTA also prohibits a land-owner from evicting farm workers who, due to injury or ill-health, are unable to continue to work the land. “[T]he mere refusal or failure to provide labor shall not constitute sufficient grounds for legal eviction”, the act clarifies. 

However, these and other protections are generally never enforced and farm workers continue to be underpaid, housed in pigsty-like conditions, and evicted from there at will, forcing them into even worse living arrangements.    

“Consumers, wine drinkers, you can no longer fool yourself. Ethically produced labels are not supposed to be there to make you feel better – they are supposed to change the lives of workers. But they do not,” Christians added.

Other unions declare solidarity

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU), to which the  CSAAWU is affiliated, has also called on all its members and supporters to rally behind the farm workers in their struggles.

Gepostet von Zwelinzima Vavi am Samstag, 21. September 2019

“We note with concern that for the past 12 years and more, CSAAWU have brought farm workers’ grievances to the attention of the government, farmers and the international world that endorses ethical trade codes. The international community can no longer benefit from the exploitation and slave conditions of farm workers in South Africa and must take joint responsibility,” SAFTU’s statement read.  

Another of SAFTU’s affiliates, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is the country’s largest metalworkers union, has extended its solidarity “simply because the struggle of farmworkers speaks to the struggle for liberation of the most vulnerable and exploited section of the working class in our society. Over and above all, NUMSA is a manufacturing union which manufactures implements for farm workers to produce food to feed the entire country and the world.”

The South African Liberated Public Sector Workers Union (SALIPSWU) also called on its members in Western Cape to join the farm workers in their march.

Calling on the “International Farmworkers’ Forum to mobilize all farm workers’ unions across the globe to advise their members not to off-load South African farm products on their shores in solidarity with the most exploited farm workers in South Africa,” NUMSA, while rallying behind these demands, has nonetheless questioned whether such changes are possible under the capitalist system.

“All the above demands can never be achieved unless we unite the working class to understand that it is under siege from an elite Capitalist minority that controls the economy. The working class must unite and organize itself to fight against.. capitalism which.. has no solution to the challenges that are facing humanity.” 

“This is why.. we believe”, NUMSA’s statement added, “that Socialism is the [only] solution and, it will enable farm workers to have ownership and control of farms and production. This march must signify the plight of farm workers and unify workers in general.”

Following the march, Karal Swart said, “Agriculture will never be the same. And we will not allow agriculture to remain the same.”

Should the European wine monopolies refuse to directly engage with the farm workers,, and should the South Africa’s ruling ANC-led government, which had promised a moratorium on eviction way back in 2006, refuse to fulfill the promise, Swart advocates an intensified campaign calling for a boycott of all agricultural exports from the country.

“It is not reckless to make a call to boycott the entire agricultural products [exported from South Africa], until [the government] comes to the [negotiating] table.. What is the purpose of an export-driven sector if farm workers and the rural poor are not benefiting [from it],” he added.