Where are your ethical standards?, South African farm workers ask European wine monopolies: Peoples Dispatch (2023)

Farm workers in the Western Cape are calling on European wine monopolies to push for ethical labor codes in South Africa to alleviate their slave-like working and living conditions.

Farmworkers in the Western Cape, South Africa, have marched on the Norwegian and Swedish embassies to demand redress for the inhumane conditions in which they live and work in the region's vineyards. The production of these vineyards is largely imported by the state wine monopolies of the two Scandinavian countries. The protesters organized under the banner of the Longshore and Allied Commercial Agricultural Workers Union (CSAAWU).

Rural workers, who work for large landowners, are poorly paid and live in unsanitary conditions, in addition to facing threats of illegal eviction.They demanded that the ethical codes that bind European buyers be applied to South African farmers to avoid violating their rights.

They also tried to put pressure on South African farmers and the government to ensure that farm workers (men and women) received a living wage, that the piecework system and labor brokers were abolished, and that farm workers became permanent employees.

In addition to providing decent housing conditions, the CSAAWU also demanded a moratorium on evictions, which current President Cyril Ramaphosa had promised in 2014.

This lawsuit was directed at three major wine monopolies: Systembolaget of Sweden, Vinmonopolet of Norway, and Alko of Finland. All of them are state-owned, with exclusivity in the marketing of wines in their respective countries. Most of its raw material comes from vineyards in the Western Cape.

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The 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 products to these companies.

However, the CSAAWU complained that these codes remain only on paper. In reality, the farm owners whose land they work systematically escape prolonged mistreatment of farm workers, in ways that violate national and international laws and codes of ethics.

“The various ethical standards boards have been around for years and years, but they have failed to hold farmers accountable. Instead, farmers are given one chance after another, with no consequences. On the rare occasions that accreditation has been suspended, this information has not been made public and wine sales continue as normal. These ethical labels and accreditations help improve brand awareness of these wines. Only farmers benefit from advice on ethical standards, not farmworkers,” said Trevor Christians, CSAAWU General Secretary.

Farm laborers are paid just R18 (about US$1.21) per hour. Women, who do the same work as men, often receive even lower wages. Pay is mainly piece rate. Thus, if there is no work due to contingencies such as bad weather and rain, the workers are sent back without pay.

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

Even this substandard housing does not come with a guarantee of tenure. Millions of rural workers were illegally evicted, along with their families, at the whim of the landlords.

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Once evicted, they often find themselves living in makeshift shacks in informal settlements, with no security of tenure and no access to water or electricity.

“Statistics from 2001 to 2004 show that 1 million rural workers were evicted. I suspect the total could have doubled [by now]. Evictions [are taking place] on a daily basis,” said CSAAWU national organizer Karal Swart.People's Dispatch.

With a legacy of slavery deeply rooted in the region, generations of farm workers, born and raised on Western Cape farms, worked in subhuman conditions their entire lives for a pittance.

Recognizing the vulnerability of farmworkers in an economy shaped by slavery and apartheid, various provisions were put in place to protect them.

The 1997 Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) states that no occupant of land can be evicted without a formal court order. However, given the state's inaction against illegal evictions, obtaining a court order is an effort rarely undertaken by ranch owners who regularly evict workers at will.

The ESTA also prohibits a landlord from evicting farmworkers who, due to injury or health problems, are unable to continue working on the land. "[A] the mere refusal or lack of provision of labor will not constitute sufficient cause for judicial eviction," the law clarifies.

Yet these and other protections are often never enforced, and farmworkers continue to be underpaid, housed in pigsty conditions, and evicted at will, forcing them to live in even worse living conditions.

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“Consumers, wine drinkers, you can no longer be fooled. Ethically produced labels shouldn't be there to make you feel better, they are supposed to change the lives of workers. But they don't," the Christians added.

Other unions join

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

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“We note with concern that for the past 12 years and more, the CSAAWU has brought farmworker grievances to the attention of government, farmers and the international world that supports ethical business codes. The international community can no longer profit from the exploitative and slave-like conditions of agricultural workers in South Africa and must take joint responsibility," the SAFTU statement read.

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Another of SAFTU's affiliates, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA), which is the country's largest metalworkers' union, extended its solidarity "simply because the rural workers' struggle speaks of the struggle for the liberation of most vulnerable and exploited section of the working class in our society. Above all, NUMSA is an industrial union that manufactures implements for rural workers to produce food to feed the entire country and the world."

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

Calling on the “International Farm Workers Forum to mobilize all farm worker unions around the world to advise their members not to dump South African agricultural products on their shores in solidarity with the most exploited farm workers in South Africa”, NUMSA , while supporting these demands, however, questioned whether such changes are possible under the capitalist system.

“All of the above demands can never be achieved unless we unite the working class to understand that they are under siege by a minority capitalist elite that controls the economy. The working class must unite and organize to fight against capitalism that has no solution to the challenges facing humanity.”

“This is why we believe,” the NUMSA statement added, “that socialism is the [only] solution and will allow rural workers to own and control farms and production. This march must signify the situation of rural workers and unite workers in general”.

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

If European wine monopolies refuse to engage directly with farmworkers, and if the ANC-led South African government, which had promised a moratorium on evictions in 2006, refuses to follow through on that promise, Swart calls for an intensified campaign call for a boycott of all the country's agricultural exports.

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“It is not unwise to call for a boycott of all agricultural products [exported from South Africa] until [the government] comes to the [negotiating] table. the rural poor do not benefit [from it],” he added.


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