A colonial hangover: big profits, massive exploitation in the Cape winelands

South Africa’s Western Cape is the ninth-largest wine producing district in the world, with wine exports contributing 36.1billion rand to the economy in 2013. And much of it with the Fair Trade label.

But along with its world-famous wines, it also entrenches massive inequality, with a handful of wealthy landowners producing vast profits while 15,000 black and coloured (a South African term for a person of mixed racial heritage) workers frequently endure dangerous working conditions, substandard housing and poverty wages.

On average, workers receive a daily wage of 80 rand (US$6.50), which despite being the government-mandated minimum wage for the industry, ranks amongst the lowest in the country.

“By midweek my wages are finished,” says Simpiwe Buxu, a tractor driver in the flashpoint town of De Doorns where labour unrest broke out in August 2012 before engulfing the whole region.

Workers in De Doorns downed tools to demand a living daily wage of R150 (approximately US$12).

Some workers set fire to vineyards and mechanical equipment, to which the police responded with rubber bullets, forced evictions and nighttime raids.

Petrus Brink , a local activist and labour advisor for the Surplus People’s Project, a land reform campaign group based in the Cape winelands, describes the current minimum wage as “halfway to hunger. It’s shameful beyond description.”

Meanwhile, working conditions are hazardous. There is heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers in industrial farming in the region, says Colette Solomon of the NGO Women On Farms.

"You find workers picking grapes without gloves or caps. Their skin is itchy and sometimes cracks from contacts with pesticides," she says.

It is not a surprise that tuberculosis stalks exposed farm workers. The Farm Lay Health Worker Project - which encourages workers to screen for tuberculosis infections - says that Western Cape farm workers have a tuberculosis cure rate of just 100 for every 10, 000 infected.

South Africa’s national average for TB is 823 per every 100,000 people. The Western Cape’s infection rate is 50 per cent higher.

When workers fall ill, hospital care is hard to obtain. Many rural wine farms in the Cape lack on-the-ground clinics.

It is no surprise that sick workers rely on their employers to travel to far away city clinics. In such cases, most farm owners demand transport fees.

For workers who are kept in clinics for longer periods, farmers terminate their jobs and refuse to pay sick benefits.


An unbearable cost

This all leads wine farm workers to fall into a deadly debt trap.

Since workers cannot move out of farm premises because of transport challenges, they are forced to buy overpriced goods from shops owned by the same farmers.

Buxu seethes with anger as he tells Equal Times: "Prices in farm stores are a big robbery. We buy a 10-kilo bag of yellow maize [a South African food staple] for 120 rand (approximately US$10). In the city it’s only 75 rand. It’s not fair!"

For items like mobile phones, furniture and clothes, farm workers borrow from loan sharks who are essentially illegal lenders operating in collusion with their employers.

On the next wage cycle, workers receive zero salaries as debts gobble up their income in advance.

As workers are consumed with despair, the Western Cape Province has South Africa’s highest risk alcohol abuse - a legacy of the now outlawed ’dop system’ where wine workers were paid in alcohol instead of money.

Violence and trauma are also rampant in the Cape. In addition, the region also has one of the world’s highest rates of unborn babies dying of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Manu Tlako a statistician with the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) says: "We must bury our heads in shame. Disease and destitution overwhelm Cape farm labourers no doubt. Stakeholders don’t look like caring too much - but the sweat of these folks fills the rows of our supermarket shelves."

With lives run down by alcohol, farm employees usually become of little use to their employers.

Wine farmers in the Cape are notorious for evicting grape workers from their properties at whim. Since 1994, it has been estimates that anywhere between one and two million workers have been chased off farms.

Wine farmers have powerful instruments to chase away workers and their families.

First, wine workers are intimidated to prevent them from joining trade unions, and are threatened with the risk of their jobs being “mechanised”.

Then labour brokers bring in seasonal workers who are rarely given long-term job contracts.

That has in turn sparked recent violence against migrants, including in other parts of South Africa.

Local workers sometimes attack African immigrant workers.

They accuse them of undermining wages as well as labour action. Killings, lynchings and other fatal assaults are reported during strikes.



What’s more, Solomon says that 70 per cent of all female workers in the wine farms are seasonal labourers.

Young people fork out bribes of R400 (US$39) to labour brokers to work as grape dryers, pickers or seeders.

To cap it all off, the Cape wine farm workers have little trade union representation. Only three per cent of farm workers are unionised says Tlako.

In the violence-plagued De Doorns wine region, a district with 180 farm units, there is no single organised union to bargain for workers.

Trade unions in South Africa are more active in the lucrative mining sector, where workers are better-organised, better-paid and therefore more able to pay union dues.

Workers in the De Doorns labour strike of January 2013 complained that COSATU, South Africa’s biggest union, as well as the Commercial Stevedore Agricultural and Allied Workers Union were absent from the action.

Only the Surplus People’s Project and the South African Transport & Allied Workers Union are known for building worker committees in rural wine farms.

Cape district COSATU secretary Tony Enhrenreich said he is concerned about wildcat strikes in the region.

"When workers take their own action without direction and guidance, that’s when danger looms...they don’t understand the parameters of the law."

“We don’t want another Marikana,” he says of the massacre of 34 platinum workers in the South African town of Rustenburg in 2012, an situation in which union rivallry is said to have played a small part.

Encouraged by workers’ incapacity to organise, farm owners are accused of overcharging workers on energy, rent and water, as well as food. But wine farm owners defend their actions.

Fuel, water and electricity charges have soared in South Africa, they say, and times are hard.

According to the South African Wine Industry and Information Systems, there were 3,596 wine producers in 2015 down from a peak of 4,515 in 1999. And net profits have fallen for many winegrowers.

But unions disagree. "Profits are healthy as ever in the wine industry, they’re recording big harvests," countered Rene Piko, a labour economist with FAWU, who cited admissions from the VinPro and Wine Tech reports.

There is a flicker of light in the wine farms however. One example is the Solms-Delta Wine Estate.

At this farm, in 2007 the Wijn de Caab Trust initiative was introduced to quicken land reform, strengthen education, health and jobs for farm workers and their children.

Two farms were held up as collateral, thus allowing workers to purchase a third wine farm.

Workers hold 33 per cent of shares in Solms-Delta and all employees stand to benefit from its profits. Farm workers are trained in other jobs, not just tilling the land.

This example shows what wine farming in the Cape region could be – but there is still a long way to go before decent, dignified work and living conditions for all farm workers is a reality.