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Unrest puts SA’s wine exports ‘at risk’

South Africa’s wine exports to Sweden, one of the local industry’s biggest markets, are listed as “at risk” following the recent unrest that took place mainly in the Hex River Valley, although the farms there produce table grapes and not wine.

Alcohol imports to Sweden and other Nordic countries, and their sale, are permitted only through state-owned monopolies that ensure high quality and also take an interest in the conditions under which it is produced, aiming to ensure that workers are well treated and adequately paid.

Members of the board of the Swedish monopoly, Systembolaget, led by chairman Cecilia Schelin Seidegard and chief executive Magdalena Gerger, visited the Cape winelands this week and spoke to workers, owners and management on wine farms.

They explained at a press conference on Wednesday evening that the wines imported from this country were of high quality and “greatly appreciated by our customers”.

But South Africa had been given an “at risk” rating because of reports that workers were underpaid and lived in poor conditions.

Gerger said it was not intended to stop or reduce the imports provided Systembolaget was satisfied that steps were being taken to deal with workers’ complaints, and employers were given adequate time to comply. Systembolaget, like the similar state-owned monopolies in other Nordic countries, uses its influence to ensure the wines it imports are produced under socially and environmentally ethical conditions.

South Africa had joined Chile, Argentina, Bulgaria and California on the list of high risk regions. California was on the list because of the employment of illegal immigrants on some of its wine farms.

Gerger said Systembolaget was impressed by the fact that South Africa was in the forefront of establishing a market for Fair Trade products.

An independent audit of suppliers was already in progress that might result in suggestions for improvements.

Questions asked at the meeting by representatives of a Swedish non-governmental organisation, including whether the board had visited De Doorns, the centre of the Hex River Valley table grape industry and the focal point of the recent unrest, gave the impression that they were unaware that there had been any political aspect of the trouble or that some of the violence had been carried out by people who were not farmworkers.

Linda Lipparoni, the chief executive of the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (Wieta), which was started in 2002 and carries out a detailed audit of working conditions, pay and accommodation on farms before granting full membership, said it had 180 members.

But approximately 200 other wine producers had applied to join and were going through the process of inspection and complying with the requirements for full certification, which could take up to a year.

She said that in most cases permanent staff lived on the wine farms in accommodation that had to meet Wieta requirements for size as well as standard, and some of their remuneration was in the form of benefits such as electricity and medical aid.

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