The South African wine industry is introducing an ethical seal in a bid to reassure both consumers and retailers that its wines are produced under fair working conditions.
The initiative was launched Thursday by the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA), almost nine months after Human Rights Watch published its Ripe with Abuse report, condemning working conditions on fruit and wine farms in South Africa’s Western Cape.
WIETA gives much of the credit for the move to repair South Africa's ethical credentials to the Swedish wine-buying monopoly Systembolaget.
“There’s been a lot of pressure from Scandinavia in particular,” said Su Birch, CEO of Wines of South Africa and WIETA board member. “Because they are monopolies, they get a lot of flak from media in their own countries. One of the vulnerable points of sourcing from South Africa is that people think we don’t treat labor properly.”
South Africa is an important wine supplier to Sweden, accounting for 20 percent of Systembolaget’s total sales. According to Birch, “it was the monopoly that got the seal. They made us realize we had to do something. And then, when the Human Rights Watch came, people were very angry that everybody was tainted by the same brush – the bad farms make everybody look bad.”
She adds: “The energy was there for the wine cellars – the co-operatives – and VinPro, which represents the producers, to come on board.”
Only those producers who meet the criteria set by WIETA will be entitled to use the seal. It is anticipated that the first seals will be granted within six months to producers that are already WIETA accredited, such as Robertson Winery and Ken Forrester Vineyards.
WIETA’S code of good practice includes the right of workers to a healthy and safe working environment, a living wage and protection from unfair discrimination. Worker housing tenure should also be respected, it says.
According to WIETA’s website, the association has more than 60 member companies and 15 accredited producers. Birch admits that its membership is tiny, given that there are around 4,000 producers nationwide.
“A year from now, we hope we will have 2,000 farms on board,” she says. “Some of the big companies are already writing into their contracts for 2013 or 2014 that it’s a prerequisite for their farms to be WIETA accredited. So they are taking it seriously.”
Birch reports that leading wine producer KWV is “already halfway through having their farms accredited. Distell is a long way down the line. Accolade and Origin have all said that they are going to get their farms accredited. So there’s a big groundswell in the industry that says we are going to do this now.”
Rico Basson, CEO of VinPro, says the long-term goal is ultimately to have a single seal. It would combine the existing sustainability accreditation, wine-of-origin certification and the new ethical seal.