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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The other side of the coin?

Human Rights Watch has just published a report, Ripe with Abuse, on conditions pertaining on South African fruit farms. It's well worth reading as it outlines many of the serious issues affecting workers' conditions in South Africa. There are some aspects I would quibble with (I've never seen toilets or hand washing facilities in any vineyard, European or otherwise; South African wine farmers use very few pesticides although I don't know about the table fruit industry) but it is a pretty unsettling document.

A few very interesting things come out, not least the utter failure of the ANC government to properly protect the workers. In an interesting book on the problems of life in South Africa, Advocates for change, edited by Moeletsi Mbeki, published by Picador, it is noted that the ANC government is very good on issuing policies but not so good on planning or implementation. Further, even 17 years after democracy some 67% of ANC voters have no jobs and 69% have little or only rudimentary education. Nelson Mandela famously invited all Africans to enjoy the new South Africa and millions have taken him at his word with the resultant increase in shanty towns outside the long-established townships, increased economic violence within those shanty towns all made worse by the single fact that there aren't enough jobs for native South Africans in the first place.
Undoubtedly farmers must carry a large degree of responsibility - I can recall seeing farm workers spraying tanks with SO2 without any protective clothing and seeing workers in a sparkling wine facility working without hard hats or eye goggles, for example. There is an underlying fear on both sides which exacerbates old racial tensions and leads to abuse of farm workers by the farmers and violence against farm owners by the workers.
Having said that I have also seen many estates which treat their workers very well - often paying well over the minimum wage (set by government at ZAR1,375.94 per month - approximately €137.60), giving workers extremely good housing, education and medical benefits and so on. The requirements of the Black Economic Empowerment initiative (BEE) has meant that all businesses have to have some form of black ownership or equity scheme in place. Some, such as Paul Cluver, have donated land and expertise to the local community enabling them to start sucessful wine and wine-related businesses - Thandi in this case. Others, such as Meerlust, have set up a joint Meerlust/community owned packaging, shipping and distribution company, Kompaniedrift, which gives the farm workers and local community a sustainable and scaleable business.
There is an ethical dimension to all wine production and it is important not to lose sight of that, especially in recessionary times when the first instinct is to buy the cheapest wine available. Lower retail price means much less money being distributed down the supply chain and in some countries, Chile is another which springs to mind, this can have dire economic consequences for the local workers. Having said that there is still no excuse for the violence which occurs in the Cape, either against farm workers or owners, as this solves nothing and only entrenches old hostilities. Somehow or another, the government has to sort out the social problems which exists in South Africa but, I'm sorry to say, I have little confidence that this will be achieved.

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