Over the past few weeks I have spent a great deal of time on labour and housing related issues which are part and parcel of the South African wine industry. Historically, part of a farm worker’s remuneration was the provision of a house by the farmer. The reasons for this are quite complex, including social and economic elements. The relationship between vineyard workers, wine industry and farm housing would make an interesting post-graduate research topic for an enthusiastic student! I think that the situation on the farms today probably has its roots in the colonial slave labour era and subsequent restrictions on land ownership. In the past, people were less inclined towards travel and commuting; distances seemed to be far greater. As a child I can remember an outing to Paarl being a big occasion, although it was only 10km away. Today I have to discipline my staff not to pop off to the shop on a whim to buy an irrigation fitting.  Also, farmers and workers used to work much longer hours and we all worked from dawn to dusk, which necessitated living on-site.

The responsibilities of a farm owner have stretched from providing a job to being a reluctant landlord and in return workers’ prospects of ever owning their own homes were bleak or non-existent. Like so many other farmers, I have identified home ownership as a vital component of personal empowerment for our workers. On my Spice Route farm outside Malmesbury, I was able to complete this process really quickly and effectively due to the fact that the farm borders on the established settlement of Abbottsdale. Spice Route workers now own their own newly-built homes and land in this town. The Fairview situation is a more challenging proposition and you can follow the progress at the Fairvalley Eco-Village blog.

The South African Government has been openly critical of the wine industry’s perceived lack of transformation as well as the plight of farm workers. In some cases, this has been entirely justifiable. But I feel that in most situations this is not the case. We often hear of malpractice on wine farms, the stubborn remnants of the banished ‘dop system’, farm beatings (which seem to be ‘terroir-specific’), low wages and poor working conditions. But very seldom do we hear of the many good things that are being done through the co-operation and collaboration between farm owners and workers. I don’t have the exact figures, but there are approximately 4000 wine grape growers in South Africa. These farms provide employment to over 220 000 people and historically the majority stay on the farms with their families. A lot of these homes are not in any way up to standard, some are average and some are of excellent quality. I have often compared these homes to what the government has provided under the RDP and similar housing projects in the rural and outlying areas. If houses of the size and quality of the government dwellings were on a farm the farmer would have been in big trouble. I had a good look at these houses while we were building the houses at Abbottsdale and am convinced that if you leant against the wall too hard you would create a new doorway! The houses have a breeze through them courtesy of the cracks in the walls, due largely to the lack of decent foundations and poor workmanship. I cannot believe that that these houses were built by competent builders or signed off by competent engineers.

Now for some thumb-sucking… wine farmers are providing housing for upwards of 200 000 people and an average house could cost anything between R50 000 and R250 000. Bearing in mind that this is ‘farmers maths’, at a minimum the investment in housing could be anything from R10 to R50 billion (or some 3 to 15 Cape Town World Cup Soccer stadiums) . No matter the reasons for this, I seriously doubt whether there is any other industry that provides this magnitude of housing relative to the value of the industry itself. Just imagine what the effect on the bottom line would be if some of our listed companies had to start to provide housing for their workers! I can state with conviction that the standard of housing on farms is improving, due to farmers own initiatives, international scrutiny, union pressure and other meaningful contributors such as WIETA and Fairtrade. If anyone has more accurate information regarding farm housing, please forward it to me.

As we all know, wine is a global product and the virtues of the different countries that produce wine makes for interesting debate. In this vein, it is noteworthy that most other ‘new world’ producers are not in the position that we are in when it comes to providing housing on farms. These producers and winemakers can simply focus on making and selling their product. However, I feel that they are the poorer for not having the opportunity to use the fruits of their endeavors to make an impact on the quality of life of the people involved in their industry.

This week I have been busy doing preparation for a January presentation to my importers in the USA. This has brought the American market into focus for the next couple of days. There are some very interesting thoughts about the potential of this market doing their rounds in the wine industry at the moment. I will share some of my thoughts on this in my next posting.

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3 Comments on A house or a home?

  1. Sandi Bryant says:

    Dear Charles

    You are to be highly commended for your housing initiative. If only our farming industry as a whole would undertake similar schemes.

  2. Dear Charles,

    your article reminded me strongly of the efforts made by 19th century idealistic industrialists in Western Europe. Today a lot of their efforts are seen as beautiful examples of a mix of idealism and business. In my country, Belgium, Le Grand Hornu, is one of the best examples, but there are countless examples. One of the points these people made was that their employees proved to be less prone to illness, but also “home-proud” what greatly reduced the number of social problems like alcoholism. Today many people see this as paternalistic but people like these created the ground of what is today a healthy society. In short, yes, your housing initiative should not be necessary, in an ideal world, but in a not so ideal world I am convinced that they make a big difference. I’ll quote Albert Camus: If the world is a big pile of shit, every one of us has a personal decision: either we add shit, either we take some away. I’m glad you took the right decision. By the way, I really like your wines too, especially the pinotage viognier.

  3. Well done! We need much more of your type of Honesty, Honorability and Idealistic views in this country of ours! I praise you!

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