Wine Regions

South Africa wines – what’s really going on there?

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) sent ripples through the South African wine industry with its harshly titled report “Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries” which was released in August. It’s a pretty thick document which paints a grim picture of the conditions of farm workers in the Western Cape province of South Africa including the popular wine making areas of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

The report indicates that “Millions of consumers around the world enjoy the fruit and wine that come from South Africa’s farms. But the workers who help produce these goods are among the most vulnerable people in South Africa.”

I have not been to South Africa, and I imagine that when I do go, I may not see the way that farm workers live. Based on how migrant and farm workers are treated in all parts of the world, there are parts of this report that are very believable but unfortunately there are huge gaps in the information presented.

My issues with the report

I’m an analyst by nature – I want the details so I can properly figure out what’s going on. The report is pretty vague in so many areas that after reading all 100 pages of it, I still have a lot of questions.

The report focuses on the wine industry in an effort to emotionally appeal to international consumers, yet only a third of the farms targeted are wine producing farms. Filled with vivid images and heart wrenching stories, the HRW report looked at less than 1% of the farms in the Western Cape.

The report does not indicate how the HRW decided which farms to target – were these farms known to have poor conditions, or was it a random selection? Knowing this would be very telling if the findings are broadly applicable across the entire industry.

Statistics are not given based on findings, there are many “some farms” or “often” descriptors but the information is hard to interpret. Hard data such as “90% of the farms that were examined had X, Y, or Z conditions” would allow readers of the report to better understand the extent to which these poor conditions were found. I imagine it will be difficult for South African winemakers and the government to put in place the best measures without this information.

South African Winemakers respond

Worthwhile Wine Company founder Tom Lynch issued the following statement on the company’s website:

“I’d like to be clear that there are certainly abuses of workers that go on in South Africa – as there are of undocumented migrant workers who pick grapes and all other fruits in the US and almost every other country.

Behavior of this type by any farmer, anywhere, is reprehensible, inexcusable, and worthy of global review and scorn. For that, I commend what HRW is trying to do. However, one of the reasons we chose to focus on South Africa as the initial source of great wine for our earth and people friendly business is because of all the tremendous efforts made in South Africa toward bettering the lives of workers.

No matter how wide-spread the report headlines make this abuse seem, it simply isn’t the case. If you read deep enough into the HRW report it is clear the cases they discovered are isolated.

My personal experience re-affirms the same. And while any abuse is disgusting and unacceptable, the fact that the abuse seems to be isolated is an extremely critical point. By making it initially appear the abuse is wide-spread, the report has the potential to harm the very people HRW claims to want to help.

It is critical for American consumers to understand just how much effort and investment is made on a large majority of wine farms in South Africa because it would be a tragedy for those doing the right thing to suffer because of the abuses of a few.”

There are many other articles online that winemakers have responded to, trying to not be caught in one fell swoop with the farms indicted in the report.

Conclusions?

Given the information presented, this is a tough one.  A lot of controversy has ensued (see article and comments on Vinography as an example).

The South African government and fruit and wine industry owners must ensure that they are treating their workers ethically. Organizations such as the HRW exist to help but need to be very clear in their conclusions and ensure that the data they present is interpretable so corrective actions can be put in place.

Unfortunately the HRW report does not name names in an attempt to protect workers and I don’t want to punish the good owners so I will continue to buy and enjoy South African wines until I learn more.

What will you do?

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