Monday, October 31, 2016

It's easy to distort a story. Danish film about South African wine farms

A film "Bitter Grapes - Slavery in the Vineyards" has been released in Scandinavia by Danish filmmaker Tom Heinemann. It shows wine farm workers living in horrific conditions on South African wine farms. We can’t say anything about the agenda of the people who produced the film. What we can say is that it is very easy to take three farms out of over 1000 wine producers and make a story which tarnishes a country whose wine industry has more Fairtrade accredited wine producers than there are in any other country. There are bad apples in every barrel and, if left to fester, they will spoil the whole crop. By all means expose them and work to bring about change. But it is wrong to paint a distorted picture. An enormous amount of effort has gone into cleaning up the wine industry in the last 20 or so years and a film like this which emphasises the bad without telling about the much larger good side of the story can undo the benefits in a short time. We hear that the producers of the film used obsolete material to illustrate current financial facts
Danish incomes cannot be used as a yardstick for comparison with ours any more than one can equate their much higher cost of living with ours. People from the Northern Hemisphere come here and tell us that everything is “so cheap”, but they don’t always take into account that their incomes are a large multiple of ours and comparisons of prices don’t work unless you also compare incomes. A fair income here would be unlivable in Europe. We have to be very careful about travelling to Europe or North America because there is very little there that we can afford, even though we, personally, have a high standard of living in South Africa. When we travel, it tends to be to countries like Greece or Vietnam where prices compare favourably with our own. Eating out in England would be an unimaginable luxury for us and Scandinavian prices have always been a multiple of England's. When John worked in Norway, he had double the income he had in London and he could not live as well in Oslo as he had lived in London. That was many years ago, but the comparison is still valid. Visiting Norway again is a dream which can only become real if we win a lottery. A typical wine farm worker's income, which is well above our legislated minimum wage, can never be compared in bare numbers with the amount needed to survive in Denmark, Norway or Sweden, let alone in the UK or France, or even Spain or Portugal
It is significant that the Swedish Systembolaget, the organisation responsible for all wine imports into Sweden, has conducted its own audit and is satisfied that the South African producers from whom it buys wine do not transgress their high standards. These producers include at least one of the producers featured in the film, Robertson Winery. Sadly, even though 26 years have elapsed since our country moved from the old, repressive regime, there are still people who see us as a soft target and use us as a subject to pursue their sensationalist ends
What a film like this achieves is to undo much of the good that has been done by the wine industry in the last 30 or more years. If it succeeds in damaging our wine industry, all it will do will be to marginalise more of our wine producers, only 35% of whom make a profit according to British writer Tim Atkin, and increase our frightening 26.6% official unemployment rate. Maybe Herr Heinemann calls that working with a social conscience
Buying our wine, or any other products made here, such as motor cars (our biggest manufactured export), gives people jobs and puts money into their pockets. Producing a film like this, even though it pretends to tell a noble story, can put people out of work and increase their level of hardship. We have a difficult enough job making enough money to survive without having to contend with destructive stories like this which can as easily be made about wine producers in other countries.If you really wish to improve the living conditions of workers in South Africa, please recognise that we make excellent products, wines that compare very well with any others in the world and win international competitions, and buy them. We don't want your charity. We do want to compete on a level playing field and win on merit
We don't need to be a soft target for sensational and one-sided story tellers. Remember the old adage about the Road to Hell and Good Intentions

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