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Half-empty wine glass

Jan 11 2013 07:36 Mzwandile Jacks

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THE glass is half-empty for South Africa’s wine producers, unless they fix the problems that caused the strikes that have flared in the Western Cape’s farmlands.

From the Cape's sunlit winelands, which have thrived for more than three centuries, comes the distant drumbeat of what some say is the sound of a revolution that will crush low wages that have been paid to farmers there.

This week striking farmworkers who blocked a highway in the grape-growing Western Cape clashed with police.

It was the first confrontation of a year likely to be marked by fractious labour relations, after the protests which ripped through De Doorns in 2012.

The workers, many of them hired on a seasonal basis to pick and pack fruit on farms owned mainly by whites, want a minimum daily wage of R150, up from the present R69.

Workers reportedly say they are struggling, and that it is very difficult to survive on R69 a day. A mother of three said school is starting and she did not have money for school uniforms.

Another said there was no food on the table and her children often went to bed hungry.

A worker who says he has been employed on a farm since the 1970s, when he received R45 a day, says he now gets R65.

Now therein lies the rub. If this is not an exaggeration, it is a clear example of exploitation, which winelands farmers have flatly denied.

South Africa has more than 100 000 hectares of grape-producing vines, an attraction for tourists around the world.

I would like to say that although wine is an essential product in many homes, restaurants and supermarkets, most consumers do not know or care that some of the labourers who work on the winelands are exploited and otherwise mistreated.

A chief disgrace is that farmers - and many of the readers of this column - have rarely expressed outrage over such abuses, and even fewer have raised a finger on behalf of those farmworkers who are exploited.

The ugly truth is that most South Africans rarely think about the inhumane working conditions some of those involved in the process responsible for the good, delicious and expensive wine presented on their tables may have to face on a daily basis.

Until consumers, local and international, become sensitive to the plight of those who are ill-treated, the abuse and exploitation will continue.

Our wine - which commands respect in Europe, the US and many other parts of the world - may come at great expense to some of the workers who provide it.

The road map to justice starts by rebuffing the concept that our country can depend upon temporary workers to nurture and harvest our crops.

The history of temporary foreign agricultural worker programmes has demonstrated that they break up families, lead to exploitation of the weak and dislodge South African citizens.

Rather than the defective agricultural temp worker programmes that have failed our country decade after decade, South Africans must create a system that proffers these hard-working individuals permanent positions with benefits.

Such a route would be true to our democratic principles and would empower farmworkers with the rights necessary to improve their own conditions of employment.

Workers on the farms in the Western Cape embody everything we take pride in as a nation. They are diligent risk-takers dedicated to family and church. They are the toughest and most heroic people.

So I remain positive that the resilient nature and heroism of the farmworker community will help the country in many ways.

I am glad that outsiders, such as deputy president of the ANC Cyril Ramaphosa, have had to come in and make some significant statements.

Though he was not specifically referring to the Western Cape wine farms, Ramaphosa has called on businesses to take better care of their employees. This is a breath of fresh air.

We have become used to ANC politicians who look the other way when things like this happen.

 - Fin24

*Mzwandile Jacks is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are his own.

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mzwandile jacks  |  farmworker protests
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