Ripe for Change? The New Ethical Seal for South African Wine

Last August, many people in the South African wine industry, the South African farmers’ associations, and the Western Cape government were livid – because of me. I had written a Human Rights Watch report that looked at human rights conditions on South Africa’s fruit and wine farms in the Western Cape province. The report documented human rights abuses, while also noting existing better practices. Though workers and others had described a number of problems, the report focused on three main areas of abuse:  unsafe working conditions, substandard housing and threats of evictions, and obstacles to union formation.

The South African wine industry, for the most part, reacted to the report with outrage, while the fruit industry stayed mostly in the background:  peculiar, since I had conducted approximately two-thirds of my interviews on fruit farms, something made clear in the report. But wine is easier to identify by origin than fruit, and the report and ensuing media attention thus had greater potential consequences for the wine industry. The CEO of WOSA, the wine industry export organization, debated me in radio interviews; she was also quoted as saying “There is one way to end all this. It’s to get our house in order. But we can’t do it all at once.”

The South African wine industry has followed up:  recently, it announced the creation of a new ethical seal, which “will testify to reasonable working conditions.” The seal will be overseen by WIETA (f.k.a. the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association), a multistakeholder organization. Brand owners who want the seal must identify all suppliers; at least 60% will have to be WIETA accredited (thus in some kind of compliance with the WIETA Code of Conduct), while the rest “will have to demonstrate that they are preparing themselves for accreditation.” WIETA plans a three-step approach:  training on labor law and the WIETA Code, producers’ self-assessments on compliance, and a WIETA audit that includes on-site inspections. Brand owners who meet these criteria may use the seal on labels or the neck of bottles.

The ethical seal is a big step forward, but what will it mean for the lives of farmworkers? In my opinion, its impact depends on three things: (1) how WIETA interprets its code; (2) whether WIETA requires increasing percentages of accredited suppliers; and (3) the effectiveness of the audits. I could write pages on this, but for the sake of not boring you, here are the main points:

How WIETA Interprets its Code of Conduct
For the most part, the WIETA Code merely requires that accredited members follow South African law. Among other things, it prohibits forced labor and child labor, and states that members must comply with the national laws on labor relations, working hours, and tenure security. As wine writer Tim James noted, WIETA’s demands are “[n]ot exactly a big deal in terms of ethical behavior – those who don’t qualify for WIETA should, in fact, be prosecuted.” Of course, as I found in my research, the South African government has not been able to enforce these laws effectively, and so any program that forces compliance, while not astounding, would fill a crucial accountability gap.

Yet there is one area of the WIETA Code that requires slightly more than basic legal compliance:  the requirement that “workers shall receive a living wage.” WIETA explains that living wages are “enough to allow employees and their households to secure an adequate livelihood. This should be sufficient to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter and education, and to have money left over for discretionary spending.” WIETA’s definition is a bit subjective, but clearly a “living wage” does not necessarily equate with South Africa’s minimum wage, which at the time of the report was US $1.03 per hour for farmworkers – one of the lowest wages in the formal employment sector.

In the course of my research, farmworkers and advocates with whom I spoke often said that wages were one of the most pressing issues they faced. Workers told me how difficult it was to support their families, to live in dignity, to survive. Quite simply, it is hard for people to live decently on their meager minimum wages.

If WIETA auditors only examine whether minimum wages are paid – the easiest standard to measure – then they will not be able to ensure that living wages are paid. But if auditors actually examine whether wages throughout the supply chain meet WIETA’s living wage standard, and if WIETA then withholds accreditation when such wages are not paid, this ethical seal would be a big improvement for workers in the wine industry. I’m not holding my breath, but I am holding out hope that WIETA will do this.

Whether WIETA requires increasing percentages of accredited suppliers
To obtain the seal, brand owners need only show that 60% of its suppliers are WIETA-accredited, and that the other 40% are preparing for accreditation. As wine writer Jancis Robinson has pointed out, it’s easy to show that you are preparing for something. Thus, in its current iteration, the seal really only ensures that a majority of the grapes came from places that are mostly following the law. As the ethical seal program matures, WIETA should require a greater percentage of accredited suppliers in order to maintain the seal.

The effectiveness of audits
Any Code of Conduct or ethical seal is only as strong as its audits. Whether the WIETA seal successfully ensures ethical practices will depend largely on the audits’ effectiveness. Most South African farmworkers with whom I spoke had never seen a government labor inspector or an outside auditor. But some workers who had seen inspectors or auditors told me that they were unable to speak freely without fear of reprisal. It is thus not enough for WIETA to send auditors onto farms. WIETA must ensure that its auditors are able to speak with workers privately, and that the interviews do not create potential backlashes. WIETA should also provide other routes for workers to raise concerns without negative repercussions, including through trade unions and civil society organizations. And because one-off audits are not sufficient, WIETA’s audits must be consistent enough to ensure proper conditions throughout the supply chain.

Cheering change
Overall, the ethical seal is a big step in the right direction, and one that I applaud. Of course, ethical initiatives alone will not change conditions for all farmworkers in South Africa, but will merely provide greater protection to workers on certain farms. The South African government has the primary responsibility for enforcing the laws that protect farmworkers and farm dwellers. Yet in the absence of strong labor law enforcement, a seal that certifies ethical conditions – even one that essentially equates “ethical” with “following the law” – is a valuable improvement. Let’s drink to that.

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