by Matthew Taylor
Workers who produce hundreds of thousands of bottles of wine for the UK market are struggling to survive on wages of less than £4 a day and facing increasingly harsh conditions, according to a new report.
The study from War on Want claims that thousands of employees working on wine-producing farms in South Africa face low pay and the threat of sudden dismissal as the pressure to produce cheap wine for the UK intensifies. The report, which was based on interviews with workers on wine farms across the Western Cape, said that many employees struggle to feed their families and cannot afford to pay for healthcare or their children's education.
Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: "Many people will be outraged to learn that the South African wine bought in supermarkets costs more than the people who produced it earn for a hard day's labour."
The study does not name individual brands and does not cover all South African wines. However, it says the employees it interviewed were some of the poorest and most exploited in the country, and called on UK supermarkets and the government to take action.
South Africa's wine industry started 350 years ago when Dutch settlers planted the first vines in the Western Cape. Last year more than 400m litres of wine were exported and the industry employs around 250,000 people. The UK, the biggest market, accounts for 27% of exports.
Conditions for grape pickers were notoriously bad during the apartheid era. Producers say things have improved in recent years, although they admit there are still problems. Jo Mason from Wines of South Africa, an industry-owned marketing body, said: "Progress has been made ... but we recognise that there are still issues that need to be addressed."
Today's report says pressure from UK supermarkets has forced suppliers to cut production costs. Sikhula Sonke, a trade union with around 4,000 members on 170 wine farms, helped compile the report. Ida Jacobs, a union organiser, said: "The pay is low and you can lose your job suddenly, and often that means losing your house. Workers who join the union or campaign for better rights are often victimised."
Most workers are women employed on seasonal contracts. Bella, a 29-year-old contract picker worker who earns 300 rand (£21) a week, said: "I am struggling to keep my head above water. When I think of my child's future I am very worried."
The report calls on consumers to carry on buying South African wine, but says the government should legislate to force retailers to protect workers.
British supermarkets said they were committed to protecting the rights of workers in their supply chain.
Tesco said: "We take our responsibilities on the South African supply chain and every country we operate in extremely seriously. Tesco sell a range of Fairtrade wine from the republic. We are also members of the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association who even War on Want highlight for best practice. All our South African wine suppliers' wages and benefits are above minimum levels."
Sainsbury's said it expected all its suppliers to meet its sourcing standards.