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August 23, 2011

South Africa's vineyards 'treat workers like slaves'

by Aislinn Laing

South Africa's vineyards play host to thousands of tourists each year and produce some of the world's finest vintages but vineyard workers are being forced to live in shipping containers and pig sties and operate without proper safety equipment, Human Rights Watch has claimed.

In a report entitled Ripe With Abuse, the group claims that strict work regulations within South African law are not being enforced and some of the staff on wine and fruit farms are treated little better than slaves.

They claim that many are working without access to clean drinking water or lavatory facilities, and are in some cases forced to cover their faces with sunglasses and caps when spraying crops because they are not given proper protective clothing.

Human Rights Watch also alleges that some farms are still using the outlawed, apartheid-era "Dop" system whereby staff are part-paid in wine or food baskets.

They are calling on UK consumers – who account for much of the demand for South African wine and fruit abroad – to insist on minimum ethical standards to be enforced by their supermarkets and off-licences, as well as for tougher regulation by the South African government.

In one case, HRW interviewed 40-year-old Isaac, who has been living with his wife and children in a pig sty without electricity or a lavatory for the past 10 years while working on a farm exporting products abroad.

"I want to set an example for my kids, but now the kids must go to the toilet in bushes where there are dangerous snakes," he said. "It makes me very unhappy because I can't guarantee the safety of my children."

Those living in poor conditions have in some cases contracted illnesses such as tuberculosis and asthma, but then struggle to get time off or medical help given their remote locations and low incomes.

Kaitlin Cordes interviewed around 260 of an estimated 121,000 workers on 60 of 6,000 wine and fruit farms in the Western Cape region that includes Cape Town, Franschhoek and Stellenbosch.

She said such staff made a vital contribution to the country's economy yet were often "invisible" themselves.

"People don't really think about those who are producing the food they eat or growing the grapes that go into the wine they're drinking but they might be shocked to hear about the conditions they sometimes live in," she said.

The group does not name the farms nor the wine labels they produce because they fear reprisals for the workers that spoke to their researchers.

But Ms Cordes said that British supermarkets and retailers were almost certainly buying from the offending farms – among them a Fairtrade certified producer.

"The UK is the largest importer of South African wine and the second largest importer of South African fruit," she said. "Some workers told me that their farms supply to British supermarket chains. Some UK retailers have said they are aware of the problems on South African farms and none of them said they could guarantee the conditions that those who supplied them worked under. We are not asking for a boycott but we encourage consumers to ask retailers where their wine is coming from. We think UK consumers showing they care will force a change in South Africa."

Charles Senekal, head of farming union Pro-Agri Forum, said HRW should name names so offenders could be dealt with. "Farmers must pay what they should pay and ensure they are looking after their workers," he said. "We want facts so we can take action against farmers infringing the rules."

Sainsbury's said that all of its suppliers were required to comply with its Code of Conduct for Ethical Trade.

Tesco said it had invested "significantly" in ensuring ethical conditions for workers on its suppliers' farms in South Africa in recent years.

"As the HRW report identifies, there continue to be challenges in the sector and we will continue to play a leading role in supporting local and international efforts to improve overall standards, as well the in-depth activities in our direct supply chain," a spokesman said.

A Waitrose spokesman said it had “absolute confidence” in its procedures for sourcing from South Africa.

Marks & Spencer said it goes “above in beyond" by supporting education and training programmes, all its farms in South Africa were regularly audited to ensure ethical practices were being followed.

The Telegraph

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