Johannesburg - Workers at vineyards producing South Africa's internationally renowned wines are denied many of their basic rights, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report said on Tuesday.
Wine and fruit farms are a big contributor to South Africa's economy and major export earners, especially in the Western Cape which is home to six of the country's nine wine growing regions and most of its vineyards.
Quoting research based on interviews with more than 260 people, the report from the global rights group said farm workers lived in harsh conditions and were exposed to pesticides while working without adequate protection.
"Workers also often have no access to drinking water, hand washing facilities, or toilets as required by labour regulations," it said.
Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), has challenged the report.
She said the 96-page report had used a questionable basis for the selection of many of the respondents interviewed. Interviews with workers had not been independently verified, nor had employer reaction to allegations been sought.
While there are farms where employers fully complied with the law and went beyond what was legally required in the services they provided, the HRW said there was a lack of sufficient inspectors to monitor conditions on all farms.
"Labour inspectors have failed to ensure that farmers comply with these health and safety regulations," the report said.
HRW said more than half of the farm workers in the province were casual or seasonal workers. Many of them are unaware what rights they are legally entitled to.
"When farmworkers are ill or injured, as is fairly common, they are often refused legally required sick leave," it said.
They also faced obstacles in joining labour groups which would help them advocate for their rights, the group said.
The report said farm workers and their families often fall victim to illegal evictions, with authorities rarely initiating criminal proceedings.
According to the New York-based organisation, farm workers' salaries are among the country's lowest, with minimum wages at around R1 400 a month. Women are paid less, it said.
While the "dop system" under which workers were compensated in wine has been illegal for decades and mostly vanished, the report found two farms where it was still happening. Alcohol abuse was also contributing to violence among workers, it said.
"If you don't want the wine, then it's your choice. Everybody is drinking except the children and the guy driving the school bus," one of the interviewees was quoted as saying.
The non-governmental organisation urged South Africa to enforce the rights of its workers, including foreign workers employed at the farms.
"Greater coordination within the government; more robust monitoring, resource allocation, and transparency; and clarity on responsibility for the millions of farmworkers and dwellers in South Africa would go a long way towards ameliorating the intolerable abuses that they suffer," it said.
South Africa is the world's seventh-largest producer of wine, according to industry body WOSA. Britain is the single biggest export destination for South African wine.