Emotions high over labour reportThe Human Rights Watch (HRW) report into labour conditions in the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape is overly-emotional and subjective, and it is doubtful whether it will assist the people it was intended to help, according to Wines of South Africa (WOSA) CEO Su Birch.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report into labour conditions in the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape is overly-emotional and subjective, and it is doubtful whether it will assist the people it was intended to help, according to Wines of South Africa (WOSA) CEO Su Birch.
Ms Birch was speaking at the round table discussion which followed the media release at Idasa’s offices in Cape Town last Tuesday of the report, Ripe with Abuse: Human rights conditions in South Africa’s fruit and wine industries.
Wire services picked up on the report shortly after the press conference started, and it was reported widely during the course of the day on both local and international radio and television news channels.
Researched and compiled by HRW research fellow Kaitlin Cordes over the period September 2010 to May 2011, which included field visits to South Africa in November/December 2010 and February/March 2011, the report presents a bleak view of labour conditions in the two key export agricultural sectors of the Western Cape, fruit and wine, with wine being the country’s biggest agricultural export earner.
Abuses chronicled in the report include no toilet facilities in the field, pesticide use without protective gear, no paid sick leave, vulnerability to eviction, resistance to unionisation and shocking living conditions on farms that do supply workers with accommodation, among many others.
The report does note that there are some farmers who go out of their way to do more than the minimum that is required by law for their workers, but they are in the absolute minority.
It has been harshly criticised as lacking objectivity, presenting a biased view of labour conditions in the industry, and largely disregarding initiatives such as Fair Trade and the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association. The report title and the press release announcing the press conference also came in for sharp criticism as being overly emotive. It has been largely rejected, by the likes of producer organisations AgriSA, Fruit SA, VinPro, and WOSA, who have nonetheless been unequivocal in condemning the labour practices noted in the report.
Researcher Kaitlin Cordes responded to these criticisms by noting that she was at pains to avoid the use of emotive language when recounting in the report the testimony of past and current farmworkers she interviewed in the course of her research. “It was never our intention to cause harm to either of these industries, both of which are under pressure economically,” she said. “We have no interest in bad-mouthing the fruit and wine industry. We look forward to both industries coming to the table with government and other key stakeholders, to address the issues raised in the report.”
Interviews were conducted with 260 people for the report: 85 current and 32 former farm workers, 16 farm dwellers, 14 farm owners or farmers association representatives, civil society members, legal service providers, a wide array of stakeholders in both industries, government representatives and politicians, according to the methodology section of the report. With an estimated 121 000 farm workers in the Western Cape, the sample size has been criticised as being too small to be representative.
The current and former farmworkers came from 60 farms, of which 20 are in the wine industry and the balance in the fruit industry save one flower farm.
In an interview after the press conference and round table, Ms Cordes told Bolander that sample size aside, the distribution of farms was spatially even across the fruit and wine growing areas of the Western Cape, which in her view gives credence to the representivity of the findings of the report.
During the media conference HRW country director Siphokasi Thathi repeatedly said that “HRW stands by the report” – while admitting that the qualitative nature of the report would result in polarised reactions. “We’ve been criticised by both sides,” she said. “One the one hand, we’re told that the report is overly harsh, and on the other, that it is not harsh enough.”
While industry reaction to the report has been harshly critical, government’s response has been muted. Whereas the farming sector comes in for heavy criticism in the report, it is government’s manifest failure to enforce the law which governs the treatment of farm workers that comes in for the heaviest criticism. The report points out that despite a wide array of legislative and constitutional provisions, as well as South Africa’s ratification of a number of international conventions, which compel government to act in the best interest of farm workers, it has largely failed to do so. Human Rights Commission reports in 2003 and 2005, which made similar findings have been largely ignored, the report contends.
During the press conference, rural development and land reform national manager Jomo Ntuli criticised the report for making generalisations and for being unrepresentative among others. He came in for harsh criticism from Woman on Farms director Fatima Shabodien. “It is shocking that a government official can speak that way about the situation (on farms). There is no acknowledgement that there is actually a problem on farms. Instead you question the sampling method. The people about whom this report was written voted the government into power, not the farmers. You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” she said.
During the roundtable discussion that followed the press conference, a number of farm workers gave testimony about conditions on farms, and the stories were uniformly harrowing. Being forced to work despite a disability, illegal evictions, disgraceful living conditions, appallingly low wages, the threat of dismissal for joining a union, were some of the stories told.
In a subsequent interview, Ms Cordes told Bolander that whereas there was no discernible difference between the wine and fruit sectors, the further away from a major centre such as Stellenbosch or Cape Town the farm is, the greater the degree of abuse of farm workers’ rights.
There have been repeated calls from industry bodies for details – names of farms, names of farm workers – so that specific issues identified in the report can be addressed, but HRW is adamant that it will not divulge that information. Ms Cordes told Bolander that all interviews had been conducted in confidence, and that many of the interviewees feared reprisal if they are identified. “Rather than trying to remedy the problems faced by the individual farm workers I interviewed, it is our hope that all the stakeholders will engage with each other and address the broader problems the report has identified in the industry,” she said.
Speaking by telephone last Thursday morning, WOSA’s Su Birch remained critical of the report. “If anything, I am angrier than I was when the report was released, because I’ve seen how sensationally it has been picked up (by the international news media), because of how the report was written, and how it was titled. If it had come out of an academic institution it would have been very different. It would have far less sensational appeal.”
Asked whether she believed that the report was baseless she responded: “These practices must be going on to some extent, otherwise where would they have gotten the testimony from? But I do not believe they are as widespread as the report suggests. My suspicion is that the wine industry is much less guilty than the average agricultural sector. I don’t want to be portrayed as somebody who defends the indefensible, who accepts such practices if they are indeed happening in the wine industry. But at the same time, the sensational nature of the report can do incalculable harm to an industry that is already struggling.”
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