Calls to boycott South African wine haven’t come from the labour movement, who are asking for solidarity and critical support.

 

Sikhula Sonke shop steward Cathy September on the picket line

As we have reported previously, wine and fruit farms in South Africa’s Western Cape have been hit by a wave of industrial unrest over the past few months. At the heart of the matter is low wages, as well as a host of other issues, including lack of security of tenure for workers who often endure feudal conditions.

Farm workers are demanding a doubling of the minimum wage to ZAR 150 (£10.50) per day; even this would not be enough to live on. Farmers say they can’t afford it, and will be forced to mechanise and cut jobs. The situation is complicated by the presence of a large pool of unemployed people, including migrant workers from Zimbabwe and elsewhere. This further depresses wages.

There have been truly dramatic scenes on the farms, with vineyards being burned down, and protesters my tear gas and rubber bullets. As is the case elsewhere, farm workers in South Africa are very unevenly unionised, with low density split among several unions. Much of the action is unprotected, by workers who are not union members. However unions have been attempting to consolidate the demands and bargain collectively.

This is a symptom of a deeper crisis – there is a structural problem with the South African economy in that it relies on poverty wages, and until this changes we are going to see increasing unrest, such as on the farms and the mines last year.

Swedish activists demonstrate in solidarity with South African farm workers

Although there have been reports of a call to boycott South African wines, it’s important to note that this call has not come officially from the labour movement or the workers involved. The union federation Cosatu, for instance, has threatened to call a boycott if the issues are not resolved, but this call hasn’t gone out yet.

One of the unions we work with in South Africa is Sikhula Sonke, a grassroots, women-lead union and social movement. They are keen to stress that while conditions on the whole are terrible on farms, there are a few exceptions. They would like Western consumers to buy responsibly, so that good PR can be used as a carrot to encourage other farmers to treat their workers fairly.

Here is what general secretary Patricia Dyata has to say:

“Sikhula Sonke has taken a stand of which we are not in favour of boycotting the products because it is the workers in the end of the day that will suffer the consequences.

Because this would mean closing down of businesses and decrease in the export income that will lead to massive job losses in a sector where we are already faced with a lot of challenges and insecure employment dominated by labour brokers, who are still not been legislated.

We want to build strong international solidarity with the importing counties where we educate the consumers into making the best choices when buying wines and that is to ensure that the wine they are buying is made under fair and ethical conditions and that the farm workers are earning a decent salary and living in dignified conditions.

We therefore plead with consumers and organisations to support the plight of farm workers to put pressure on the South African government and farmers to acknowledge farm workers as the biggest contributors of the world’s economy and the farmers’ wealth, to even go further and see that farm workers’ families have the same needs as they have like food, clothes, tertiary education and a secure home where they won’t be evicted without decent alternative accommodation.

To be in support of the boycott is not what our members support but to use our solidarity strength and collective voice to make the bosses and the capitalists listen to the ones that are feeding them and their families.

Amandla!!!”


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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