THE severity of the bloody conflict between striking farmworkers and police in the Hex River Valley and elsewhere has come as a shock to many South Africans. The clashes are the result of disputes over working conditions and pay, which remain desperate in many parts of the country’s agricultural sector.It turns out that when it comes to more equitable farm labour systems, there is already one in operation which represents a viable alternative to the conditions that brought about what’s happening in De Doorns right now. It’s called Fairtrade.I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t many South African farmers who treat their workers fairly and pay them a decent salary, or that farmworkers shouldn’t organise and unionise themselves. Far from it.In fact, I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to this situation, but in times of crisis it’s imperative to look for ways of doing things differently and I believe that Fairtrade is one such option.The Fairtrade movement originated in Europe in the 1990s with the intention of enabling small farmers in the developing world to compete equitably in global markets increasingly dominated by giant multinational companies and unjust trade rules. In South Africa it now has a small, but dynamic and growing presence.I recently interviewed workers from three Fairtrade-accredited wine farms, one near Stellenbosch and the other two in the Breede River Valley, not very far from De Doorns. All of them expressed the sentiment that Fairtrade had changed their lives, as well as those of their families and communities, for the better.Some of the benefits they mentioned include the fact that: - strict Fairtrade labour standards have led to better conditions and working hours; - relations and communications between workers and management have improved; and - Fairtrade health and safety regulations have meant the provision of appropriate protective gear and procedures, for example when handling hazardous agricultural chemicals.In addition to improved working conditions, workers benefit from the so-called Fairtrade development premium. For every bottle of Fairtrade wine sold, about 50 cents go to the workers, who decide democratically how this premium money is to be used.On the farms I visited, the premium has been used, among other things, to: - equip workers’ houses with solar water heaters and satellite TV; - buy a bakkie and a minibus to provide transportation for members of the community; - build a crèche and pay the teachers’ salaries; - build a food kitchen; - pay for school fees, uniforms and stationery; - build a community centre; - tile the bathrooms in workers’ homes; - pay for the college education of older children; and - contribute to workers’ retirement funds.But the positive effects haven’t just been material or monetary. The workers told me that the need to collectively decide about what to do with their Fairtrade premium money, while not always being easy, had brought their communities together and had improved the situation of women who are equal to their male counterparts in the decision-making process.Self-esteem has been raised – several workers mentioned no longer being ashamed of being farm labourers when visiting town on the weekend, and one suggested that he had observed more moderate drinking habits among his colleagues who now had more to look forward to in life than before Fairtrade.A recurring theme among the people I spoke to was that Fairtrade had opened doors for their children, who, often for the first time in generations, had the opportunity of receiving a better education than their parents and finding jobs off the farm.Fairtrade is already well established in South Africa and it should be straightforward for farmers who want to get involved to apply for accreditation. And as consumers, Fairtrade allows us to vote with our rands by, for example, choosing Fairtrade wines the next time we’re in the liquor store to pick up a bottle or two. - Fin24*Andreas Späth is a guest columnist.