The situation is made more difficult by the fragmented market, where both vineyards and unions are often small. Many unions don’t have the resources or the organisational skills necessary to speak to management on an equal footing.
Much of the workforce also work on temporary contracts and don’t always speak one of the dominant local languages. It can be difficult to ensure that employers provide safe working conditions and that workers have understood their rights and instructions.
External pressure can help speed up improvements
In autumn 2016, Sweden’s biggest trade union Unionen approached the state-owned Swedish Alcohol Retailing Monopoly (Systembolaget) with a proposal to improve the situation for the workers who supply the company with South African wine. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between Systembolaget, Unionen and the food sector’s international union IUF. According to the MoU, the parties will exchange information on working conditions in the industry, and reported incidents will be investigated by Systembolaget.
Among other things, Systembolaget can be informed of worker incidents and problems of accessibility for unions. The company can also end relations with suppliers that don’t live up to the company’s code of conduct. However, the company believes it’s better to help suppliers improve working conditions rather than cutting them off and losing insight into their operations.
The importance of local unions
The local trade unions play a key role in this process. In Stellenbosch, the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association (Wieta) already works for social and agricultural sustainability, and around half of the province’s wine producers are members. The industry is also undergoing a transformation towards better working conditions. To aid in this, the IUF is considering starting a training programme for local unions to help investigate compliance with the MoU.