Bitter South African grapes

empty-shelves-where-the-robertson-wine-should-have-been-in-danish-supermarket-min-kobmand-in-november-photo-peter-kenworthyA 14 week strike against Robertson Winery in the Western Cape over poor pay and work conditions ended in November, forcing the Western Cape government to investigate apartheid-like conditions at several South African wineries.

Monthly salaries below the South African minimum wage of 2778 rand (=160 £). Falling ill from using dangerous pesticides without training or protective gear. Being fired for being a member of a union or complaining. Apartheid-like racism and lack of government protection.

These are some of the conditions that farmworkers in several of South Africa’s  wineyards like Robertson must endure, twenty-two years after the end of apartheid, as documented by reports from Human Rights Watch (2011) and the ILO (2015), as well as a new documentary, Danish documentarist Tom Heinemann’s Bitter Grapes.

And this is what the Commercial Stevedoring and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) had been striking and fighting against for over three months.

– The situation from 1994 has got worse. After apartheid it’s worse. They don’t want you to see the lies but you will see people that look like slaves, as Secretary General of CSAAWU, Trevor Christians, says in Heinemann’s film.

Western Cape Minister of Economic Opportunities Alan Winde issued a statement on the matter after Heinemanns documentary was aired on Danish, Swedish and Norwegian national television, and made headlines in newspapers around the world, which concluded that there were indeed problems on the farms investigated.

– This investigation has brought clear evidence to light that there are employees in our economy who receive very poor treatment. This will not be tolerated. I will be engaging with organised agriculture. We will take a hard line against these acts, and root out offenders, Winde concluded.

CSAAWU, for their part,  see their strike and international boycott campaign, which managed to remove Robertson Wine from the shelves of supermarkets from South Africa to Scandinavia, as a victory, even though their demands of a living wage of 8500 rand per month was not met (they got an 8 per cent rise). The struggle will now be fought across the board in all the wineries, they say.

– The wine industry will never be the same. The government has been forced to investigate the slavery conditions that exist on the farms and in the wine industry. Workers at the wine cellars across the country will take inspiration from what the Robertson Winery workers have achieved, CSAAWU said in a press statement on 23.November.

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