WINE producers and trade unions gave their support on Thursday to a programme aimed at encouraging fair labour practices on wine farms after a damning report by Human Rights Watch last year exposed incidents of exploitation of workers in the Western Cape.

The project could see the industry regain its tarnished international reputation, with qualifying wine producers allowed to display a seal on wines to show they protect workers rights and uphold South Africa's labour laws.

A meeting of stakeholders in the wine industry held in Cape Town on Thursday mooted the creation of an ethical seal that would testify to reasonable working conditions, based on rigorous and closely monitored qualification criteria under the aegis of the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association.

Human Rights Watch last year released a report which revealed that wine industry workers were among the lowest paid, with living conditions on some of the farms being sub-standard and inhumane.

The report attracted criticism from the sector, which claimed it was biased, tarred the whole industry with the same brush, and did not distinguish between wine farms and grape farms.

It also led to a spat among members of Parliament's labour committee after an oversight visit to 21 Western Cape wine farms to assess compliance with labour laws. Its report was equally critical of the payment of minimum wages; accommodation; and health and safety measures on farms visited in Citrusdal, Robertson, Worcester and Paarl. The Democratic Alliance, which took part in the tour, insisted the report had exaggerated the situation.

The initiative to clean up the wine industry was supported by foreign retailers, the Food and Allied Workers' Union, the Sikhula Sonke workers body, Women on Farms, as well as established industry organisations such as the South African Liquor Brandowners' Association, Wine Cellars SA and industry association VinPro.

Linda Lipparoni, CEO of the Wine and Agricultural Industry Ethical Trade Association, said that by introducing the seal, the body would be acknowledging and accrediting "wineries and farms that follow ethical practices".

The seal would also "protect them from any potential negative publicity resulting from those flouting the law".

She said the industry had no place for the few that, "by perpetuating unfair, inhumane labour practices are tarnishing the majority who recognise that the ethical treatment of workers is both a moral and a legal obligation".

Food and Allied Workers' Union deputy general secretary Moleko Phakedi said its support for the initiative would also give wine producers who take care of their workers a market advantage.

However, the union believed that "regular monitoring, particularly by the Department of Labour, was crucial to ensuring standards were not dropped and that a guilty establishment lost the right to use the seal if fault was found", he said.

Rico Basson, CEO of VinPro said the initiative would "increase the confidence in South African wines" both domestically and abroad.

Gerrit van Rensburg, the Western Cape agriculture MEC, said the initiative had the potential to greatly enhance the province's wine image abroad through its focus on ethical best practice.

radebeh@bdfm.co.za