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Workers shoes at Leeuwenkuil. Credit: Emil Boss

According to a former employee, Swedish liquor retailer Systembolaget says it will consider terminating its contract with South African wine producer Leeuwenkuil unless standards at its vineyards are improved.

In February 2018, Emil Boss, a former employee at Swedish retailer Systembolaget, visited South African vineyard Leeuwenkuil and Middelburg, one of the farms that supply the grapes to Leeuwenkuil, who in turn sell wine to Systembolaget.

But what he experienced was not the “decent working conditions” that Systembolaget’s code of conduct demands of their producers. Instead he saw intimidation of union officials inspecting health and safety conditions, dirty worker’s houses with broken windows, tattered worker’s shoes, dirty and shabby uniforms, lack of protection against pesticides, filthy and pesticide-ridden drinking water, and one dirty toilet per 30-60 workers.

A report from the land and wine workers union, Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU), written after a visit to Leeuwenkuil farm in December 2017, gives the same picture, as well as mentioning unpaid wages and pensions and wrongful dismissals of farmworkers.

Contract could be terminated

Emil Boss sent two reports to Systembolaget and asked for a meeting with their corporate social responsibility (CSR) department, which was duly held on 22 February 2018. He also sent the reports to Tuesday Wine, a Swedish importer who sells wine from Leeuwenkuil.

According to Boss, Systembolaget thanked him for the information, told him that they had inspected the vineyard on several occasions, and promised that they would contact Leeuwenkuil.

“Systembolaget will now start an incident process. Leeuwenkuil will be contacted and asked for an explanation. If there is no improvement, Systembolaget might stop sales of Leeuwenkuil until the problems are solved or even terminate the contract with Leeuwenkuil entirely”, Tommy Nykvist from Systembolaget’s CSR department told Boss at the meeting.

Wasn’t aware

Emil Boss worked as a cashier at Systembolaget for 15 years, where he would tell customers that the wine on the shelves was produced ethically.

After reading about conditions on the South African vineyards, and subsequently visiting one himself for five weeks in 2011, Boss came to understand that this was not always the case. He started writing about the plight of the South African wine workers and campaigning for improved conditions on South African vineyards together with the workers.

Nevertheless, he is shocked that Systembolaget apparently wasn’t aware of the conditions at Leeuwenkuil. “Systembolaget has inspected Leeuwenkuil 11 times. How could they have missed the harmful conditions that workers there live and work under? The company’s code of conduct is obviously not working”, says Boss.

Change the wine industry

Emil Boss maintains that conditions at the farms need to be rectified immediately to avoid the health risks that workers are presently exposed to. Otherwise, Systembolaget should stop selling wine from Leeuwenkuil.

“By all means keep buying South African wine, but don’t trust the retailers’ code of conduct. If you want to help improve matters and help change the wine industry, support unions such as CSAAWU and spread the word in your own countries”, he recommends.

There has been an ongoing debate on the working conditions in the South African wine industry in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, in major newspapers such as the Washington Post, and particularly in South Africa itself. The debate started, after Danish documentarist Tom Heinemann’s film “Bitter Grapes”, about the conditions on South African wineries, was shown on Danish, Swedish and Norwegian national televisions.

* Peter Kenworthy, journalist at Afrika Kontakt