A recent Human Right Watch report talks about wine worker abuse in South Africa, but does that mean we should be boycotting all wine from that region?
Last week Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report entitled Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa’s Fruit and Wine Industries. From the title alone, you can probably tell that it’s a damning report on the ways South African winery and fruit farmers treat South African workers across the entire industry.
As a person who tries to be an informed and ethical consumer, I pay close attention to reports from 3rd party groups like HRW and look to them for guidance as to which products and industries I can feel good about supporting. If you’re reading this, you likely do also. With their position in the world comes a certain responsibility to not only let us know which products and industries we should avoid supporting, but they also have a responsibility to help inform us about which we should be supporting if we want our purchases to help create the type of world we desire; a cleaner, more equitable and safer world. Unfortunately, in this report, HRW failed.
The Trouble With the HRW Report
I’ve been to South Africa many times. My family runs a non-profit that supports sustainable food gardens in rural KwaZulu Natal as a self-sustaining means for the people there to end their own malnutrition. And, I own a company that imports sustainably made wine from South Africa. I’ve walked through the vineyards at nearly 60 wineries, and on almost all of them I’ve met at least some of the workers.
The issue of owner/worker in South Africa is rife with a history of Apartheid-era abuse unlike any seen in most of the world. One can’t expect that to end in just 15 years, and no doubt there abuses like the ones that HRW reported that still happen today. I appreciate their intention; to help historically disadvantaged people of South Africa realize a better, equal, and just life. I share that goal and built my business to support that goal.
Unfortunately, because HRW’s very broad, industry-wide statements about the level and amount of abuse in the South African wine industry are not only not consistent with the details found in their own research, they could very likely end up doing a great deal of damage to the very people they’re trying to help. By making it (inaccurately) seem like abuse is the norm there, most people reading that report could decide to simply not buy any South African wine at all. And that would end up doing great harm to the people working at wineries where owners are investing large sums of time and money into improving workers’ lives.
Worthwhile Wine Company imports Fair Trade certified wines, which is a great way for consumers to know workers are taken care of. But we also have 11 other wineries we work with that are not FT certified, and every one of them is doing extraordinary things to make workers’ lives better. Just a few examples:
Owner Rijk Melck, whose family funds worker programs like a preschool for their children, saw leadership and an interest in wine making in one of his field workers, Simon. Rijk sent Simon to Stellenbosch University to study wine making, then helped Simon gain a scholarship to work on a winery in France. Upon returning to Muratie from France, Rijk not only made Simon Assistant Winemaker, but went down to the bank with Simon to personally vouch for his integrity and long-term income, so Simon could get a loan to buy a house.
Raphael Dornier’s family came from Switzerland in the mid 1990’a and purchased the estate in Stellenbosch to be part of a post-Apartheid South Africa. They quickly built new housing and began focusing on education for workers and their children, including an after school program for the workers’ children. The program has been so successful that there have been multiple children receive scholarships to attend private schools in Stellenbosch.
Mark Solms returned to South Africa after Apartheid, purchased a wine farm, set up a trust in which the workers outright own fully 1/3 of the farm, sent several for management training and they are part of the management team, and then created a museum to document the history of every worker on that farm so they could all come together in a mutual understanding of their shared past, and chart a new course for a different future. See Mark speak about it in this TED Talk:
I could tell dozens and dozens of stories like this that I have witnessed firsthand (on wineries we represent and many others represented by other importers). If people in America stop buying from wineries like this, they will end up hurting the very people they are hoping to help.
One of the reasons I started Worthwhile Wine Company was to create a mechanism for people to buy new products they’ve never heard of before, from countries with sometimes spotty reputations, and have the confidence that the products are of excellent quality and made by people doing the right things. I wanted to make it easier for well-meaning people to enjoy a great glass of wine and be able to feel good about their purchase. Unfortunately, HRW’s report is making that harder, which is a real shame.
It isn’t easy being an informed, ethical consumer. But it is worth the extra effort it takes to go beyond the headlines and really understand what is happening in the world. Even the headlines from sources you often trust.