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labor Good Cheer for South Africa's Winery Workers

South African winery workers, are among the lowest paid and most harshly treated in the country. Yet their union just won a strike through a combination of worker action at home and interntional solidarity that targetted the employer's brand.

At the end of November after a long and bitter strike, workers at Robertson Winery in South Africa’s Western Cape province finally reached a settlement with their employer. The workers, 223 members of the independent Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), returned to work on 28 November, with a three-year deal offering a pay rise, retroactive to the beginning of the strike in August, and an end-of-year bonus equivalent to one month’s pay. They also won an agreement that there would be no disciplinary action against the strike leaders.

The victory was only partial, since the workers did not achieve their full wage demand of 8,500 rand (US$619) a month, which would have ensured that all Robertson’s employees earned, at least, South Africa’s living wage. But they did raise their legitimate complaints about wages, working conditions and employment practices within South Africa and, importantly, beyond its borders.

Shortly after the strike had begun, Robertson issued what it described as “an open letter” regarding the dispute. In clause 4 of this letter, the company set out its position:

“… In the negotiations which are presently underway between the parties, Robertson Winery has proposed an increase of eight percent to Substantive conditions of employment. For its part, CSAAWU has made a final demand for a 57 percent average wage increase. The company remains committed to trying to resolve this dispute despite the relative distance between the parties’ final mandate. The dispute between the parties was subject to statutory mediation and conciliation. This conciliation failed and no settlement could be reached. Robertson Winery continues to be committed to at all times comply with the procedures enshrined in the Labour Relations Act (66 of 1995) and to deal with the dispute and CSAAWU accordingly.”

A partial victory

After fourteen weeks on strike, the negotiators settled for the original offer of an eight percent across-the-board wage increase, with a minimum of 400 rand, according to the CSAAWU’s official communiqué. This brings the winery workers wage up to the SA Department of Labour’s minimum wage for the agricultural sector, 105 rand a day.  By law, all South African employers who hire farm workers must pay the minimum wage or more. In fact, many of them get away with paying less.

“Robertson Winery is satisfied with the outcome of the negotiations and looks forward to the resumption of normal operations,” according to a press statement issued by Anton Cilliers, the company’s managing director. The terms of the settlement may suggest that the strike was ultimately a failure, and the complacent tone of the Robertson press release seems to indicate a certain triumphalism. But, as the CSAAWU has argued, the workers did achieve much, not least because in taking on Robertson they took on an international business.

“The wine industry will never be the same,” according to the union. “The government has been forced to investigate the slavery conditions that exist on the farms and in the wine industry. Workers at the wine cellars across the country will take inspiration from what the Robertson Winery workers have achieved. All the cellars are now going to face militant class struggle to overcome the conditions we have experienced at Robertson Winery. More than that the CSAAWU members mobilised a powerful movement of solidarity, internationally and across the entire country.”

Farm workers in general, and workers in the wine industry in particular, are among the least organized and most exploited in South Africa, and the CSAAWU has had a difficult history due largely to its own lack of resources and the characteristics of the agricultural sector — barely unionised at a density of 3 percent (2012 figure) and, in the union’s words, blighted by “racism and kragdigheid” (‘kragdigheid’ can be roughly translated as ‘systematic brutality’).

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Not about money

According to a report by Ra’eesa Pather, writing in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, one of the strikers’ spokespeople, Emile Maseko, believes the dispute should not be seen as primarily about money but about workers’ solidarity. And, says Pather, “It’s not over, as workers and the union say that Robertson has racist labour practices.”

It is the perceived degree of racism at Robertson Winery that has motivated the struggle of the company’s workers and has helped build pressure for change from around the world.

The company has said that it “fully commits itself to uphold the principles enshrined by the International Labour Organisation (sic) in regard to all matters concerning labour relations. All the company’s labour practices are measured against this standard.” But this may be stretching the truth.

The company claims to abide by the highest ethical standards “audited and accredited” by South Africa’s Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association (WIETA) and the international Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI). These bodies have programmes and codes-of-conduct formally according with guidelines and conventions published by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations (UN) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These should guarantee ethical standards in employment practices and working conditions.

Of course, pay levels are not included in these codes, which is a big problem. There can be few employment situations less ethical than paying starvation wages. In fairness to Robertson, since the strike began the company has accepted the South African minimum wage, and that is now part of the dispute settlement.

But the strikers argued that South Africa’s system of industry-dependent minimum wages means that agricultural workers are extremely poorly paid. Their demand was for a living wage, and this remains a distant hope. The truth is that it’s difficult to separate the issue of low wages from the legacy of apartheid, and as far as South Africa is concerned, this legacy persists and may foil even the best intentions.

A bitter legacy

According to Brian Ashley, director of South Africa’s Alternative Information and Development Centre (AIDC), who helped negotiate the settlement between the workers and Robertson Winery, “One of the biggest issues of this company and in the Winelands is racism and a very strong apartheid mindset.” For example, a number of toilets at Robertson are reserved for whites, wages for black workers in some trades are half those of whites, and, according to the CSAAWU, “black workers have to clock in at three different entry points before they start their work”.

The background to the Robertson Winery strike can be found in the history of theWestern Cape farm workers’ strike which ran from 2012-13. The immediate cause of this strike was widespread dissatisfaction with low wage levels, exploitative employment practices and poor living conditions in tied rented accommodation.

In August 2012, a series of farm worker’s strikes broke out in the concentrated farming areas across the Western Cape. The first workers to strike were mainly women workers at a single farm whose new owners planned to cut wages. The strike soon spread to other farms and wineries, including Robertson’s, and then throughout the Western Cape district. By late October 2012, police and farm workers were clashing. The police used rubber bullets to disperse strikers, causing many severe injuries.

By November, thousands of workers had taken to the streets and had issued a comprehensive programme of demands. About 9,000 workers took part in the strike (out of a total of around 120,000 in the region). Several people, both strikers and non-strikers, were shot and the government and COSATU, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, which is SA’s main national union centre, had stepped in.

The strike continued fitfully, probably as a result of mismanaged negotiations between the Ministry of Labour and COSATU which seemed to ignore the strikers and the unions to which they belonged. The CSAAWU was only one of the organizations on the ground which was not affiliated to COSATU. When the strike ended in 2013, no actual settlement had been made. The government had only agreed to hold talks about the workers’ concerns. The employers, like the unions, were largely ignored, and many of them sought retribution from the workers who had struck. Rents were increased by as much as 100 percent, those unable to pay were evicted, full-time workers were fired and their jobs handed to seasonal workers on short-term contracts.  The whole affair left a bitter legacy, not least at the Robertson Winery.

The world is watching

“Little was resolved,” according to the Mail & Guardian‘s Ra’eesa Pather. But what happened next has had important global ramifications. A Danish investigative reporter and film-maker called Tom Heinemann took on the South African wine industry in a production for the leading Scandinavian broadcasters, DR (Denmark), SVT (Sweden) and NRK (Norway).

The result was a film called ‘Bitter Grapes – Slavery in the vineyards’, which highlighted the conditions for workers in the Winelands. The film was aired in Sweden and Denmark in October, during the recent strike, and with the aid of the global union for the food and agriculture industries, the IUF, it seems to have brought Robertson to the negotiating table.

Scandinavian countries are among the largest customers for South African wine, consuming some 50m litres of it every year. Retailers, including the state-owned Swedish liquor monopoly, Systembolaget, with more than 9 million customers, have rigorous ethical codes. One sniff of the Heinemann’s findings was enough to cause a retail panic.

It’s about decent work

As the strike began in August 2016, the CSAAWU made a number of proposals towards settling the dispute, including the idea of establishing a joint union/management monitoring committee to ensure that ethical standards demanded by Systembolaget were met. This would, of course, have required the active cooperation of union and employer. Regrettably, Robertson was not interested.

According to industry website, Wine Searcher, after ‘Bitter Grapes’ was aired “several Scandinavian supermarkets … removed from their shelves wines from Robertson Winery and Leeuwenkuil, the other major focus of the film.” Systembolaget’s intention to do the same was clear and would have been very bad news for the wineries. Equally important was the response of the South African government to the accusations in ‘Bitter Grapes’. “Five South African wine farms have been served legal notices of non-compliance in a worker-mistreatment investigation prompted by a Danish director’s exposé documentary,” according to Wine Searcher.

The CSAAWU has demonstrated that successful actions across borders can be taken with support from campaigners and campaihning organizations, working with a global union like the IUF. The Robertson Winery workers are applying ethical norms to a global supply chain to achieve the goal of decent work for all.