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South Africa’s Sour Grapes

South Africa’s Sour Grapes
  • PublishedOctober 24, 2013

South Africa is one of the largest wine-producing countries in the world. Exports have boomed over the last 10 years, and have risen from 174 million litres in 2001 to 350 million in 2011. The Cape Winelands – the wine district of the Western Cape province – is one of the wealthiest areas of South Africa, but the workers hardly get a living wage. Cynthia Boll reports.

It is early morning, and I am sitting on the curb of a small square in Lanquedoc, a hamlet between Stellenbosch and Franschhoek in the middle of South Africa’s wine-growing region. I have been told that this is the place to be if I want to observe the real lives of South African seasonal workers.
Different groups of people are standing or sitting around me. They are waiting to be picked up and taken to their work at one of the surrounding vineyards where the grape harvest is in full swing.

Most of the men are dressed in blue overalls while the women wear blue housecoats. As a white truck pulls into the square, about 15 men stand up and walk towards the road. The side door swings open and I can see at least 20 people sitting on the floor of the cargo area. The men climb into the truck and the door is locked. The vehicle is now completely sealed; there are no open windows or ventilation grilles. As the truck drives off, I’m thinking about those 35 people and what it must be like to be thrown about at the first corner in that pitch-black cargo space. Soon, outside that vehicle, the road winds into the hills that are covered with wine tendrils and long avenues leading up to the stately, white mansions built in the Cape Dutch style. This is a very scenic landscape.

Each year, this industry has a turnover of almost $8 billion. Yet you see very little of that wealth in evidence there on the small square in Lanquedoc and, despite enormous profits, the wages of the 40,000 agricultural labourers are amongst the lowest in the country. “Although profits have risen for the companies over the past few years, the workers have in no way benefited from this”, confirms Anthony Dietrich of South Africa Wine Industry Trust, an organisation committed to reforms in this industry.

South African wine is popular around the globe. According to the latest available data, for 2011, the country is the eighth largest wine producing country in the world, exporting over 357m litres a year. The top five markets for packaged South African wine are, in descending order, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Netherlands and the US.

The South African wine industry is now coming under pressure. In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report on the poor working conditions of seasonal workers resulted in protests that ultimately culminated in violent strikes by the end of 2012. The strikers demanded that the legal minimum daily rate of R69 ($6.85) should be more than doubled to 150 rands ($15) a day. By way of comparison, $67 a day is paid for the same work in France.

“It’s too easy to blame the farmers,” says Pieter, who does not want to give his full name. He has a small farm and employs a number of permanent and seasonal workers. “I’d like to pay them higher wages but I don’t know how. As a small-scale farmer, I don’t have a say in the matter. My customers offer me a price for my grapes and I have to just take it or leave it.”

If, in accordance with the strikers’ demands, the wages were to be raised to $15 a day, the sector’s expenses would increase by some 53 per cent. A recent report by the South African Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) reveals that – from a business viewpoint – labour-intensive wine farms would simply be unable to defray these costs. However, this does not apply to every farm. For, remarkably, the most prosperous wineries frequently pay their employees no more than the legal minimum wage. The newspapers report that even South African multi-millionaires such as the Rupert family are only paying the equivalent of $6.85 a day, this despite the fact that pater familias Anton Rupert was not only an entrepreneur but also a philanthropist and World Wildlife Fund conservationist.

“I have no idea how much we pay our seasonal workers,” replies the manager of the upscale restaurant of one of South

Africa’s richest wine houses when I inquire about the grape pickers’ wages. “But we do take good care of our people”, he adds as he tops up my glass of wine. Later, when a black waitress brings me my bill, I try it again: Does she know how much the grape pickers are paid here?

She looks around hesitantly. “Yesssss, madam,” she nods shyly. “R69 a day.” I look at the bill and realise that my glass of wine was the equivalent of more than half a day’s hard labour.

Several blocks away from the square, on the Vuurpylstraat, lives Johanna Williams, a seasonal worker in the grape industry. This 53-year-old woman is the sole breadwinner for a household comprising thirteen people. She is the only one who has work. As a grape picker, Johanna earns R80 ($8) a day. Once a fortnight after payday, Johanna does her shopping in Paarl, a medium-sized town located in the heart of the wine country some 20km from Lanquedoc.

Approaching from a distance I can already see Johanna waiting in front of her house. She’s wearing her best clothes especially for the occasion: a pair of improbably white trousers (considering that she does not possess a washing machine) and a red-and-white printed Hawaiian shirt that is at least three sizes too big. We set off in a “taxi”, a minibus that serves as public transport. Following a nerve-racking journey lasting 30 minutes, we arrive at the Shoprite supermarket in Paarl, which – because of its cheap prices – is extremely popular.

“It’s very busy today. Yesterday was the workers’ payday,” says manager Ibrahim, before adding triumphantly: “And Shoprite has the cheapest prices!” Wandering around the shelves, I soon discover that those cheap prices are not so cheap. For Johanna, buying a packet of rice is the equivalent of working for an hour-and-a-half, while a head of lettuce entails three hours’ work, as does a piece of cheese. A bottle of white wine would mean slogging away for an entire day. No wonder the strikers are demanding that their wages be increased to $15 a day.

However, BFAP research shows that, for 51 per cent of the workers, a daily rate of $15 would still not be enough to cover their daily nutritional needs. Once we’re back outside, I find that Johanna’s bags mainly contain staples: five kilos of flour, two-and-a-half kilos of sugar, five kilos of rice, a litre of oil, yeast, instant coffee and a roll of toilet paper. In her hands, she’s clutching a brightly coloured piece of paper: a lottery ticket. With no steady job or income, winning the lottery is Johanna’s best and only hope of a better future. A few days later, the government announces that it will raise the legal minimum wage to nearly $11 a day – a move in the right direction.

Written By
New African

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