(GIN) — The label says “Fairtrade” but the conditions at some of South Africa’s money-making vineyards are anything but…

That’s what two academics from Rhodes University of South Africa concluded in a study of the country’s wine industry, once characterized by the use of enslaved workers and the exploitation and paternalistic control of Black and “colored” laborers by white farmers for more than 300 years.

After the end of apartheid and with the country’s reintegration into the international community, winegrowers were able to import modern technologies and access global export markets for the first time. As a result, South Africa is now the ninth-largest producer of wine in the world and generates more than US$550 million in export value annually.

A number of wineries have formed to fulfill the standards of Fairtrade International, such as workers’ rights and environmental protections. The group certifies products and ingredients after reviewing company practices and is a symbol commonly associated today with chocolate, coffee, cotton, and various other items.

Fairtrade products are sold at a higher price because a percentage of the sale value is designated for day care centers, literacy programs, and medical centers.

But interviews with a number of farmworkers suggest that while the wine bottles might bear the Fairtrade label, the workers on these farms do not feel fairly treated.

Of some 30 farmworkers interviewed, most were not even aware that the farm they worked on was Fairtrade-certified. Several farmworkers reported poor and unsafe living and working conditions. One woman complained of the vineyard where she worked lacking toilets for women. “We have to relieve ourselves in the vineyards. The only toilets you see is when there is an audit.”

“We were promised that these houses would be temporary,” said another. “It is cold, and when it rains, the rain comes in…We have reported this, and nothing happens. I have to constantly move my bed when it rains because the water comes through. I have been here since 1979. They [farm management] have ignored me. They don’t care.” 

An investigative documentary (“Cheap Wine, Bitter Aftertaste”) that spotlights Germany, the second-largest importing country of South African wine after Great Britain, found problems.

of farm workers in the wine sector, 80 percent were seasonal, forcing them to turn to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Fund when the harvest season ends in March. 

The minimum wage is about one-third below the living wage needed to support a household, as calculated by the NGO Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity. 

The workers’ harshest criticism about working conditions was over the use of pesticides, particularly the herbicide paraquat, which is banned in many countries. 

“There is no simple answer to the problems faced by workers on wine farms in South Africa, wrote Gisela ten Kate of the Dutch activist group SOMO in an article titled “Labor Conditions in South African wine industry remain appalling.” “Dutch supermarkets need to take their role in the supply chain seriously, to pay fair prices so that farmers can pay a proper wage.” 

The human rights defender Oxfam International wrote: “We found proof of labor rights violations and inhumane conditions.” 

Oxfam has been part of the global Fair Trade movement since its inception. Today, it continues to inspire many volunteers to champion just and sustainable trade.

“We believe the current trade system is far from just or sustainable. It was captured by imperialistic and colonialist forces in the past and remains, even today, under the control of the powerful and the rich to a large extent,” according to Oxfam. “Trade justice offers an alternative approach. But as long as it excludes people and future generations from its welfare-creating properties, trade cannot be considered just or sustainable.”

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