Industrial Action: Response Letter From Our Swedish Importer

Having been the importer of Robertson wines for many years, I would like to respond to the newspaper article published in the SvD Näringsliv about Robertson Winery. To begin, we wish to emphasize that the socio-economic challenges faced in South Africa are greater than ever. South Africa is a young democracy and is still in a kind of “teething phase.” Those who have travelled to South Africa since 1994 will have witnessed its incredible development in the right direction. A large portion of this development has taken place thanks to Swedish wine consumers. Sadly unemployment remains high (approx. 30%), corruption is widespread and HIV is spreading rapidly amongst young people. The country is undeniably in a very sensitive situation.

As one of the few wine importers, we have chosen to work for sustainable development within the wine industry. Attempting to change the system is a difficult and demanding task – but this is what it will take. Global trade predominantly builds upon enlisting cheap labour which in turn undermines opportunities to fight poverty. The only way forward is to fight poverty, but as privileged consumers in Sweden we must also understand that low-price produce will always incur different costs for the people behind the product. Choosing Wieta or Fairtrade wines makes a difference – don’t forget that. Robertson Winery and the part-owned vineyards belonging to the Robertson Cooperative were the first in South Africa to obtain the “Wieta” mark. The cooperative includes approximately 35 vineyards owned by 26 families. This also includes the Constitutional Road farm, wholly owned by women as part of the BEE project.

There are currently two major South African best-sellers (approx. ten times the volume of Robertson) at Systembolaget, let us call them “Alabmu” and “Ilabmuz”. These two products never come under media scrutiny as the wines are bought in barrels and boxed in southern Sweden. No trace, no questions, no media attention. And so it is paradoxical that Robertson Winery is being portrayed as one of the worst examples over and over again, when they are one of the few producers who show transparency and can trace their grapes. We believe that this is due to strong branding and vineyards directly linked to their production. Cooperative running acts as a guarantee, as it encourages shared responsibility. Attention must furthermore be brought to our decision to bottle the wine locally (at a higher cost) to guarantee local employment opportunities.

This is now the fifth time since 2012 that the same people from the same trade union – CSAAWU with help from the Swedish solidarity organisation Afrikagrupperna’s campaign for fair wine trade – have approached the media for publicity in a very difficult situation. The Danish journalist Tom Heinemann is currently in the middle of launching his most recent film production, “Bitter Grapes – Inside the Wine Industry” which will have its premier on the Swedish public broadcasting service’s “Uppdrag Granskning” programme on 19 October. Both the current strike and boycott movement appear to be part of a bigger agenda that aims to highlight the often difficult and challenging conditions faced by agricultural workers in the south. The will is good and we are also working for change, but in a different way.

I would very much like to emphasise that Robertson Winery is not tantamount to slavery. Salaries are relative and reviewed annually by SA8000-certified accountants. Additionally, salaries are reviewed alongside experience, job description, gender and ethnicity. Everyone at Robertson Winery has the right to be affiliated with a trade union. Unfortunately, as a rule, trade unions are small and poorly organised. Figures show that only 3-6% of agricultural workers are linked to a trade union. We see the opportunity here to establish contact with Swedish trade unions that hopefully can support and help their South African counterparts with long-term development.

Soon it will be the weekend and as a consumer, you can make your own responsible choices to contribute to sustainable and long-term development in South Africa.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss the matter further, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards,

Martin Horwitz

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