A successful workers’ strike against Robertson Winery in the Western Cape has forced the government to probe apartheid-like conditions at several South African wineries.
Vineyard workers endure low salaries, racism and pesticide-induced illness. They can be fired for being a member of a union or complaining, and lack government protection.
‘The situation since 1994 [the end of Apartheid] has got worse. They don’t want you to see the lies, but you will see people that look like slaves,’ explains Trevor Christians, Secretary General of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) which led the successful 14-week strike last November.
The strikers’ case was boosted by a Danish documentary, Bitter Grapes, which exposed the shocking conditions. A boycott followed, which removed Robertson wine from supermarket shelves from South Africa to Scandinavia.
CSAAWU see the strike as a landmark victory. Although they didn’t win a living wage, they did secure a hefty, backdated pay increase and an annual bonus for all workers – plus there was no disciplinary action against strike leaders. Now they are taking the fight to other wineries, they say.
‘The wine industry will never be the same,’ says Christians. ‘The government has been forced to investigate the slavery conditions that exist. Workers at wine cellars across the country will take inspiration from what the Robertson Winery workers have achieved.’