Dying to make a living

Flicking through the wine news over the last few days, there has been one story that has shocked me. This is the story of a 28 year old South African farm-worker being killed whilst protesting for an increase in his minimum wage of 70 rand (£4.94) to 150 rand (£10.59) per day.

Violence broke out on Monday the 5th of November as farm-workers from the Western Cape went on strike in protest for an increase in their minimum wage and improved working conditions. It has been reported that workers often don’t have access to drinking water or toilet facilities, are exposed to agricultural chemicals without the necessary safety equipment and live in conditions that are deemed unfit for humans (‘Ripe with Abuse’  a report issued in August 2011 by Human Rights Watch).

Vineyards and farm buildings have been burned during the protests as the striking farm-workers fight to gain the attention of their employers and government ministers.

Western Cape Agriculture Minister, Gerrit van Rensburg, suspects that there are more political motives behind the strike and that this is not just about increased wages for the workers. This may be so, however the fact does remain the the wages are ridiculously low and if I was working hard and not making enough to feed myself and my family, I would be angry and up for making my voice heard.

ImageFarmers try to save fruit containers set alight by protesting workers. Photo courtesy of the Irish Times.

The main thing that shocks me about this story is that there has actually been a death. Why do people often have to die for their cause before the rest of us to sit up and pay attention? Here I am, sitting very comfortably in London, often enjoying South African wine and teaching others about it. And over there, the workers who are harvesting the grapes are barely earning enough to scrape together a living. Risking their lives to get their working conditions changed for the better.

I feel very naive. I knew wages were low and conditions often trying for vineyard workers, but I had no idea just how bad the situation is. Having worked in Marlborough vineyards during my youth the most I had to complain about was being a bit bored and cold, but I’m pretty sure I made in an hour or so what the protesting farm-workers take a day to earn and I didn’t have a family to support.

These days we are all so much more aware of working conditions for the makers of our high street clothes and often choose to support local food producers. Do our same values and morals influence our wine choices – or are we easily swayed by the big supermarket mark-downs?

It can be tricky to know which wine producers do treat their employees fairly but a good place to start when buying South African wine is to look for the Fairtrade logo.


Fairtrade has been around since the 1960’s and has many benefits. Its main aim is to ensure sustainability and development through trade but also focusses on improving living and working conditions for employees and invests in local community projects.

Of course there are many good South African wine producers that do look after their workers but won’t have the Fairtrade label. However without doing lots of research, choosing wines with the label is a good place to start.

I will certainly be paying more attention to where my wine comes from in the future. Will you?

A list of Fairtrade wine producers can be found following this link: http://www.fairtradelabel.org.za/product/wine.1.html