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August 23, 2011

Report on South African wine sector farm conditions biased - industry body

Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), has challenged the Human Rights Watch report entitled Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa`s Fruit and Wine Industries. She said the 96-page report, purporting to accurately document conditions on farms, had used a questionable basis for the selection of many of the respondents interviewed in the study, while interviews with workers had not been independently verified and nor had employer reaction to allegations been sought. As a result, it was extremely difficult to respond to specific allegations highlighted by the study.

According to its authors, the report was based on interviews in 2010 and 2011 with "over 260 people, including 117 current or former farm workers and an additional 16 farm dwellers."

Birch said: "Readers of the report have no basis for understanding how representative the sample of respondents is. The study relies on anecdotal evidence that uses the cover of respondent protection to avoid substantiating the claims it makes.

Moreover, the media release, provocatively entitled South Africa: Farmworkers` Dismal, Dangerous Lives and distributed internationally, does not present a sufficiently comprehensive picture of conditions across the wine industry and as a result, is potentially misleading.

"Like the report itself, the release disingenuously plays down the significance of the wine industry`s substantial direct and indirect contribution to improving working conditions through organisations such as the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), and Fairtrade.

It also makes scant mention of empowerment initiatives. With positive examples of the progress made in redressing past wrongs rendered virtually inaccessible to all but the most serious readers, the report negates the work of those who should be allowed to stand out as role models to their peers."

In contrast with the report`s virtual dismissal of the role of WIETA, she said the organization had continued to expand its involvement with producers. WIETA CEO Linda Lipparoni had confirmed that membership of the organisation this year, was up 29% on 2010 and had continued to strengthen since its inception in 2002.

"Many WIETA members are now writing WIETA compliance requirements into their supplier contracts," said Lipparoni. "There are over 80 farms being audited under the Wine Supply Chain Support Programme in 2011."

She added that WIETA`s approach to auditing was a developmental one. "WIETA has implemented a capacity building programme for small producers and suppliers. It involves comprehensive training and awareness workshops for both managers of small wineries and farms, and workers` rights awareness sessions for farm workers."

She confirmed that auditing for accreditation took place every three years which was in line with international best practice.

"In partnership with the Ethical Trade Initiative (ETI) in the UK, WIETA is also implementing a three-year training programme focusing on understanding and addressing discrimination and sexual harassment," added Lipparoni. "The project involves the participation of over 150 farms in the Western Cape in training managers, supervisors (including team leaders) and workers."

Birch said that as far as Fairtrade was concerned, South Africa had the highest number of Fairtrade-accredited wine producers worldwide.

Birch added that another example of the report`s questionable approach was the accusation levelled at farmers for not affording their workers protection when spraying for pests, without including any mention of the far-reaching Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) eco-sustainable principles that set very clear guidelines regarding the use of pesticides and the need for worker protection. Monitoring for IPW compliance included blood testing amongst workers to check for pesticide residues. "Compliance is regularly and independently monitored. Producers who flout the regulations not only run the risk of losing their IPW accreditation but also their ability to export."

Referring to the housing conditions highlighted in the report, she said: "While we are not disputing that there are transgressions and that these are taken very seriously by the wine industry, at no stage does the report contextualise the provision of housing for workers. Wine farmers are currently providing housing for over 200 000 workers which represents an investment of billions of rands.

As one of South Africa`s most progressive wine producers, Charles Back recently commented on his blog: `I seriously doubt whether there is any other industry that provides this magnitude of housing relative to the value of the industry itself. Just imagine what the effect on the bottom line would be if some of our listed companies had to start to provide housing for their workers!`"

She said the industry`s support for measures to address alcohol abuse amongst workers, as well as Foetal Acohol Syndrome (FAS) had been given glancing attention and was almost buried within the report. The Industry Association for the Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA) imposed levies on members, who were producers of wine as well as other beverages, to initiate widespread anti-alcohol abuse programmes, including in the Winelands and research into FAS. Amongst the particularly active producers in this regard were Distell and Wine Cellars SA (WCSA), with the latter representing over 60 large producers.

ARA director Adrian Botha said: "Success is partly dependant on breaking the cycle of poverty and providing value-based education."

Leading South African wine producer, Distell, whose portfolio accounts for a third of the country`s total still and sparkling wine production confirmed that Distell-owned and LUSAN-owned farms,( in which Distell has a 50% stake), were unionised. Heidi Bartis, the company`s communication manager said: "Annual negotiations take place between union members and the relevant unions and a substantive agreement is reached for a 12-month period.

Where applicable, housing is made available but is linked to employment. In some instances housing is made available rent-free, with water and electricity also provided at no cost. Free transport on some farms is offered to labourers to do their week-end shopping and to attend sports, school, religious and cultural events. Workers can subsidised medical funds, while a mobile clinic service provides additional health support to labourers and their families. Functional literacy programmes, specialised agricultural training and crèche facilities are also available to workers across some of the farms."

Birch stressed that the report had the potential to do great harm to the industry that was already battling in the face of a strong rand and a protracted global economic downturn, without the benefit of the government support that its global competitors enjoyed. "Ironically, it could also jeopardise the jobs of the very people it claims to be championing.

"In the interests of the continuity of the industry and its capacity to create employment and sustainably improved working conditions, the wine sector deserves to be monitored with fairness and not to be undermined by assertions based on what appears to be random anecdotal evidence.

"Let me make it very clear: we condemn out of hand any and all human rights abuses on wine farms. Our disappointment in the bias of the report is in no way an indication of our support for inhumane practices. It expresses our concern that trade and consumers all over the world could become alienated from South African wines. We call on Government to partner the wine industry in accelerating reform and in rooting out problems."

Statement issued by Su Birch, CEO, Wines of South Africa (WOSA), August 23 2011

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