By now, many of you will have heard of, read about, and/or actually watched the documentary Bitter Grapes, a film that examines harsh conditions for workers in some areas of the South African wine industry.
“Danish journalist Tom Heinemann… found that some workers were allegedly being paid less than the minimum wage, exposed to pesticides, consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol and discouraged from joining unions, among other problems.”
The WP piece also puts the film’s findings in important context: like the USA, South Africa doesn’t exactly have a great humanitarian record when it comes to how farm workers were treated in the past. In more recent history, there was the terrible “dop” system (now illegal), under which S. African workers were paid partially in wine.
I’m not here to discuss the implications of the documentary, though for sure I have opinions on those given my past visits to South Africa’s wine country.
What I want to talk about is the Wines of South Africa (WOSA, the promotional body for the region’s wine business) response to Bitter Grapes. Because their response tastes a lot like sour grapes to me…
First, here’s an excerpt from WOSA’s official response:
“The South African wine industry has come a long way in recent years to work together in order to improve the sustainability of one of its biggest assets – the workers. Whilst we recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done, there are numerous programmes that include social upliftment, housing, land reform, education, skills and medical care for farm workers and their families. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of bodies such as WIETA and Fairtrade, there are regular audits across the board that support and encourage positive change with regular audits, however these changes simply cannot happen overnight. It will take time, but the reality is that change is taking place, even despite many wine farmers running their businesses on very tight margins.”
The response goes on to (quite logically, I think) argue that a boycott of S. African wines (a move which several within the international wine community have suggested as a result of the findings in the documentary) could undermine some of the progress made for workers’ rights in the country. While that is possibly true, I fear that message will be lost in the crushing wave of the previous paragraph’s pure suckitude. And I don’t mean because they used the word “whilst,” either.
Here’s why I think their response deserves to be flushed down the toilet:
- Their highlighting of audit efforts doesn’t address the core issue: why there are still worker conditions such as those exposed in Bitter Grapes despite the audits and progress made to date.
- Mentioning “tight margins” suggests that having deplorable working conditions is a predictable byproduct of those margins; so if it is predictable, it could have been prevented.
- The focus overall on margins and bottle prices in the response seems almost callous when in response to a documentary focusing on the impacts of working conditions on the real lives of real human beings.
- Speaking of those lives and those people, how about mentioning what’s being done now in response to what has been uncovered in the film, rather than looking back on the past? The “hey, you should’ve seen how bad it was before!” argument only gets you so far, especially when “before” was so incredibly terrible, and “now” isn’t looking all that hot, either.
The workers in the South African wine community deserve better than this WOSA response, and I sincerely hope that they get better, soon.