Vineyards in the beautiful Western Cape. Delicious-looking red wine poured into a glass. Happy consumers shopping for wine in supermarkets. Then the image changes to the conditions of the farm workers and the contrast is immense.
The images are from Bitter Grapes, a new documentary by Danish journalist and documentarist Tom Heinemann that was broadcast on Danish national television on October 20.
Bitter Grapes documents how farm workers work 12-hour shifts for which they are paid as little as R100 ($7), which is below the South African minimum wage. Migrant workers from countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe are paid significantly less, because they are desperate for work.
The film also portrays an industry where workers fall ill from the toxic pesticides that are used. The workers in the film do not use masks or other protective gear, other than a facial cream that they apply at home.
The workers say they have no freedom of expression and risk being fired if they complain or are members of a union. They also blame the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trading Association (Wieta), which oversees the industry’s fair labour practice certification, for turning a blind eye.
“My dream is like everyone’s dream. To have a car and a proper home with a wife and everything. To have a proper job that can pay you a living salary, so you know that at the end of your life, your family will benefit,” a young farm worker, Siyabulela, says in the film.
Unfortunately, such dreams do not often come true for farm workers like Siyabulela. In the film, we are shown how many live in shacks with corrugated iron roofs with no toilets or electricity.
“The situation from 1994 has got worse. After apartheid it’s worse. They don’t want you to see the lies, but you will see people that look like slaves,” says Trevor Christians, the secretary general of the farm workers’ union CSAAWU.
Director Heinemann agrees. Some farmers and vineyard owners treat their workers as their private property, he tells me, quoting from an e-mail that was sent by the vice-chairman of Wieta.
“If they complain about filthy drinking water or ask for overtime pay, as two workers told me, they are sacked.
“South Africa might have laws that protect them from evictions, illegal layoffs and underpayment, but it seems they are not acted upon,” he adds.
The conditions shown in the film paint a picture of the South African wine industry that the wine producers do not want the public to see. So when Heinemann tries to uncover alleged breaches of ethical standards at Leeuwenkuil Vineyard, his requests for interviews are rejected and he is told he will be sued if he perseveres.
The film crew therefore uses small, discreet cameras when documenting conditions at Leeuwenkuil unannounced. The farm workers show pay slips that document salaries of R100 ($7) a day for 12-hour work shifts, which is well below the minimum wage.
The lack of dialogue with the owners of vineyards such as Leeuwenkuil is only too familiar for Karel Swart of the CSAAWU. That the workers are supposed to have freedom of speech at the vineyard, as Leeuwenkuil’s director suggests in a letter to Heinemann, is a “total lie” Swart says. “What we normally see when we enter the farm, he closes the gates and threatens us.”
Heinemann and his crew experience a similar “warm welcome” at Robertson Winery.
Here farm workers have been on strike for two months, demanding a living wage and decent working conditions.
Several Danish supermarkets have removed wine from Robertson Winery from their shelves pending an investigation into the working conditions of the farm workers, something the Swedish government-owned chain of off-licence stores, Systembolaget, is also looking into.
Heinemann arranged an interview at Robertson Winery through Wieta, to ask about the working conditions of the farm workers. But when he arrives at Robertson, cellar master Bowen Botha and export director Geoff Harvey refuse to be interviewed.
And when Heinemann repeats the offer of an interview and extends his hand to Botha and Harvey, one of them is caught on tape telling him: “I don’t want to shake your filthy hand. You are a disgusting piece of rubbish.”
Heinemann believes it is important to focus on the plight of the farm workers and the attitude of wine producers such as Robertson Winery.
“I think it is important to show the consumer how some of the wine is produced, and as far as I know this is the first documentary to do so,” he says.
Heinemann hopes his film can help bring about changes in the South African wine industry.
“The supermarkets promise the consumer that the conditions of the farm workers have certain standards, that they are not exposed to dangerous pesticides without proper protection. That such promises of corporate social responsibility and being responsible for one’s contractor and sub-contractor can be critically investigated is self-evident to me.”
But what can consumers do to ensure the wine they drink is produced under tolerable conditions? In Bitter Grapes, the interviewees argue that it is important to think and act ethically when buying South African wine.
“You, as a consumer of South African wine, have to help change those conditions by saying you will only drink wine that comes from farms and distillers that take into account these conditions and are willing to make changes in the lives of the farm workers, and that they treat farm workers with human dignity,” as Mercia Andrews from South African NGO TCOE puts it at the end of the film, before we see clouds engulfing Table Mountain and the narrator telling us legend has it that this symbolises a battle between good and evil.