Wine labor in South Africa

I’m a day late to the theme of the Labor Day holiday. But, heck, why don’t we make it Labor Week? In the wine world, the efforts of those who prune, spray, and harvest go mostly unheralded as we tend to focus on glamorous vintners or winemakers. Perhaps nowhere is the labor situation as acute as South Africa.

There, wine farms, as they are known, have been around for centuries, making South Africa possibly the oldest “New World” wine countries. Sadly, the “dop” system, now illegal, of paying workers a portion of their pay in wine also spanned centuries, bringing with it devastating health consequences for the farm workers. A recent report from Human Rights Watch contends that the industry still has a long way to go for meeting a suitable minimum standard for worker conditions.

Still, there are signs that the industry in the racially divided country is changing. The NYT recently ran a terrific profile of Ntsiki Biyela, originally from KwaZulu Natal who had never tasted wine before learning to make it on a scholarship at Stellenbosch University. Now she is the wine maker at Stellakaya Winery and was hailed as the country’s Woman Winemaker of the Year in 2009.

Mark Solms, a psychoanalyst, left South Africa during Apartheid. When he came back to later take control of the family farm, he did so by mortgaging his own property so that the black workers could become one-third owners in the adjoining property and set up a museum trace the history of workers on the farm. He talks about it in the below video at a TED conference in London. “The answers are obvious–it’s not brain science. You only really have to want to.”

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11 Responses to “Wine labor in South Africa”

  1. Possibly the best post I’ve ever seen here.

  2. Dave-

    Thanks. Usually comments like that come with backlinks to viagra sites or Zune players. But since you are a regular reader and commenter, I know it is for real!

  3. Jeez, next time I’ll be more specific!

    Solms is a pretty amazing guy. And finally, someone not just talking about but demonstrating what it means to “confront history.”

  4. Glad that Africa is getting some notice from you as a reputable wine producing area. They are some great wines coming from there and they don’t get nearly enough credit with all of the well-known regions taking center stage!

  5. The findings of the HRW report has spread rapidly throughout the international wine community, but I have unfortunately seen little coverage about the raging debate of the report’s accuracy here in South Africa. Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), is very critical about the report and the way in which it was conducted. See this link to read an in depth review about the current debate: Regardless of the outcome, consumers should not feel morally obliged to boycott SA wines – this serves only to worsen the conditions of the people it claims to champion… Well that my 5 cents. Really enjoyed the TEDtalk BTW 🙂

  6. The HRW report has been criticised and the South African wine business have been defending themselves. A boycott will only worsen the situation.

  7. The reality is that you have rotten grapes in any vineyard, so to speak. Many estates and growers in South Africa are going way beyond doing the necessary to provide for their workers – such as Mark Solms, long-time advocate for beter worker conditions, Beyers Truter of Beyerskloof, and premium estates such as Kanonkop. Many of these estates employ many more workers than they need to run efficient operations, because they see it as a social responsibility (and they can afford it).Currently the biggest threat for worker conditions is the outright ban on alcohol advertisements proposed by the SA government – it will hurt producers and, by extention, the workers.

  8. […] Read article Share this:FacebookEmailPrint Previous article Storms complicate vineyards’ harvest Next article /* […]

  9. Truly one of the best postings I have ever listened to. Thank you Mark

  10. […] Vino talks about wine labor in South Africa and the how in the wine world labor usually never […]

  11. Kudos for Niki Bella and Mark Solms, we expect many more of other figures who appear like that!


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