Farm workers in Western Cape, South Africa marched to the embassies of Norway and Sweden to demand the redressal of the inhumane conditions in which they live and work at the vineyards in the region. The produce from these vineyards is imported largely by the state-owned wine monopolies of the two Scandanavian countries. The protesters were organized under the banner of the Commercial Stevedore Agriculture and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), that received the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights in 2017.
The farm workers, who toil under the diktats of large farm owners, are underpaid and live in unhealthy conditions, while also facing threats of illegal eviction. They have demanded that the ethical codes that bind the European buyers be enforced on the South African farmers to prevent the violation of their rights.
They also sought pressure on the South African farmers and the government to ensure that the farm workers – men and women alike – are paid a living wage, the piecework payment system and labor brokers are abolished, and farm workers are made permanent employees.
Along with the provision of decent housing conditions, the CSAAWU has also demanded a moratorium on evictions, which the current president Cyril Ramaphosa had promised in 2014.
This demand has been addressed to three major wine monopolies – the Systembolaget of Sweden, Vinmonopolet of Norway and the Alko in Finland. All of them are state-owned, with an exclusive right to sell wine in their respective countries. A major portion of their raw material is sourced from vineyards in Western Cape.
Ethical codes prescribed by the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), Fair Trade, Fair for Life and AMFORI-BSCI are applicable to all farms that supply their produce to these companies. However, the CSAAWU has complained that these codes remain only on paper. In reality, the farm owners, on whose land they labor, systematically get away with the prolonged ill-treatment of farm workers, in ways that violate both the domestic and international laws, in addition to the ethical codes.
"The various ethical standards boards have been around for years and years, and yet have failed to hold farmers accountable.. Instead, farmers are given chance after chance with no consequences. In the rare occasions where accreditation has been suspended, this information has not been made public and wine sales continue as usual. These labels and ethical accreditation help to improve the brand reputation of these wines. Only farmers benefit from ethical standard boards, not farm workers,” said Trevor Christians, the general secretary of CSAAWU.
The farm workers are paid a mere R18 (about USD 1.21) per hour. Women, who do the same work as men, are often paid even lower. Payments are mostly adjusted based on piecework. Thus, if no work can take place due to contingencies like bad weather and rain, the workers are sent back without any pay.
They are also forced to handle toxic pesticides without any protective clothing. Even the houses in which they live on the farms are “equivalent to pigsties”, the CSAAWU statement proclaimed.
Even this low standard housing does not come with a tenure security. Millions of farm workers have been illegally evicted, along with their families, at the landowners’ whims. Once evicted, they often find themselves living in make-shift shanties in informal settlements, with no security of tenure, and no access to water or electricity.
“Statistics from 2001 to 2004 show 1 million farm workers were evicted. I suspect the total could have doubled [by now].. Evictions [take place] on a daily basis,” CSAAWU’s national organizer, Karal Swart, told Peoples Dispatch.
The ESTA prohibits a land-owner from evicting farm workers who, due to injury or ill-health, are unable to continue to work the land. “[T]he mere refusal or failure to provide labor shall not constitute sufficient grounds for legal eviction”, the act clarifies.
However, these and other protections are generally never enforced and farm workers continue to be underpaid, housed in pigsty-like conditions, and evicted from there at will, forcing them into even worse living arrangements.
“Consumers, wine drinkers, you can no longer fool yourself. Ethically produced labels are not supposed to be there to make you feel better – they are supposed to change the lives of workers. But they do not,” Christians added.