How South African wineland workers used global networks to fight for their rights
In recent years, South Africa has seen a resurgence of the exploitation of workers in apartheid-style. The debates surrounding these practices were given a new impetus by the release of Bitter grapes four years ago. The documentary was produced by Tom Heinemann of Denmark and featured South African Wineland workers.
Bitter Grapes shed light on widespread exploitation. The hardships include health and safety violations as well as underpayment of wages and illegal attempts by producers to restrict access for trade unions on farms. The conditions are incompatible with South Africa’s progressive Constitution. These conditions are also in conflict with the International Labour Organisation Conventions that South Africa has signed relating to organized labor rights.
In a research paper, I made the case that the film’s activism helped to create a documentary that reflected heightened optimism about the working conditions at wineries.
Workers’ networked activism
Ethical Wine Trade Campaign played a key role in the production of Bitter Grapes. The collaboration involved worker organizations and solidarity movements from South Africa, Sweden, Chile, and Argentina. All of these regions are significant wine regions.
This campaign uses local knowledge to improve conditions in the Winelands of the Global South. It can be used as a tool to exert pressure on wine supply chains to improve their conditions. Bitter Grapes was made possible by the campaign that brought together actors from Scandinavia and South Africa. The film was crucial in creating regulatory reforms.
The Commercial Stevedoring and Allied Workers Union was a key player in the campaign.
Bitter Grapes’ impact reflects a strategy of connecting activists from different places who are related to the same sectors. South Africa’s links with Scandinavia are no accident. Nordic countries are the largest consumers of South African wine. The country’s state-owned monopoly retailers, Systembolaget and Vinmonopolet in Sweden, are the main distributors. These companies hold the only licenses for the sale of alcohol in Norway and Sweden. Both governments are under pressure to regulate the supply chains, which are funded directly by taxpayers.
In my paper, I explored how workers can use networks to exert public pressure on the government and companies to improve supply chain regulation. This could enhance the working conditions and provide more opportunities. I am looking at the changes that have occurred in the regulation of working conditions.
Since Bitter Grapes, several changes in wine farm regulations have been made as a result of the moral and political appeals that European consumers have made.
First, there will be changes to the formal inspections of state-led labor. The South African Labour Inspectorate investigated and verified several claims in Bitter Grapes. The inspectorate then showed greater interest in rural areas and committed to a more open dialogue with unions for gathering intelligence on worker exploitation.
Second, the private regulation of producers has undergone major changes. The wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association has changed the way it operates. In response to concerns, it has committed to auditing farms at a higher frequency. It has also agreed to use a more transparent grading system. The change will make it so that farms with poor performance are faced with a real trading threat. In theory, farms that receive a low audit score are unlikely to be able to sell their products to major European retailers.
Vinmonopolet, Systembolaget, and other wine producers have all taken steps to raise the bar of production standards. Vinmonopolet ordered a series of independent audits and created a new 8-point assessment that producers must adhere to. The findings confirmed that several wineries faced a number of “critical” risk factors.
Systembolaget has, on the other hand, adopted a novel and new approach to reporting standard violations spurred by the Swedish trade union Unionen. The Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the International Food Workers’ Federation. The memorandum was created to provide support to unions in South Africa and to offer a reporting system for those unions.
In order to improve the quality of work, progressive labor laws must be created. However, laws are only limited in their ability to improve conditions in industries that have hidden workers and inspectors who struggle to keep up with the realities of the workplace.
Regulation is important for this reason.
My case study shows that workers can influence both public and private forms of regulation to their benefit. It involves creating consumer boycotts and supply lines of corporate pressure that producers will find difficult to ignore.
Workers can influence not only reforms in laws and regulations but also the strategies used to enforce labor standards. For example, they could make the Labour Inspectorate more active.
Workers have, in this case, helped to reorientate regulatory agencies from simply nudging companies towards improving conditions to a more robust regulatory model that includes the threat of sanctions.