In Arbetet Global’s report on the South African farm workers at Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards, whose wines are sold in all Systembolaget’s stores, Claudene van Wyk claimed that she was losing working hours when the farm’s management brings in more day labourers.
“The women here aren’t given permanent employment, the owner replaces those of us who’ve been here a long time with temporary workers. We’re told that we have to stay home while he hires replacements. The salaries we end up with are like slave wages.”
Now, the farm’s management has called her to a “disciplinary hearing”.
Depending on the outcome of the hearing, ”it is possible that you may be dismissed”, states the notice.
The notice also clearly states that it is Claudene van Wyk’s comments in Arbetet Global’s report that is the basis for her possible dismissal.
“The hearing is not about speaking to the media or whomever, it is about giving false information”, writes Kobus de Kock, managing director at Leeuwenkuil, in an email to Arbetet Global.
“Never has anybody ordered anyone to stay at home, those who do so do it out of free will. We are running a business and need work to be done on time.”
In the report, Claudene van Wyk, who is a local representative of the agricultural workers union CSAAWU, also claimed that the trade union’s presence at the farm had been a source of discontent for the owner.
The trade union is “feeding you with lies”, writes Kobus de Kock to Arbetet Global.
However, Trevor Christians, secretary general of the CSAAWU, sees a direct connection between Claudene van Wyk’s trade union work and the possibility of dismissal she now faces.
“They want to make an example of Claudene. They want to send a message to other workers thatthis can happen to them”, he says
Over the years, Leeuwenkuil has faced several previous controversies when working conditions at the company’s farms have been exposed.
In 2016, the documentary Bitter Grapes resulted in inspections of Leeuwenkuil farms by the South African Department of Labour. According to the producers of the documentary, the department decided that Leeuwenkuil must demolish worker’s dwellings that were in danger of collapsing, start paying workers during sick leave and close the farm shop which was charging employees prices above normal rates.
In the fall of 2016, following the airing of Bitter Grapes, Systembolaget conducted at least eleven inspections of Leeuwenkuil’s farms to ensure that the wine producer complies with ethical standards.
CSAAWU has long accused Leeuwenkuil of hostility towards trade unions.
Arbetet Global has asked Systembolagets sustainability department to comment on the possible dismissal of Claudene van Wyk. Systembolaget has replied that it is seeking “more information about the situation”.
That echoes the answer that Systembolaget gave in 2018 when another employee was dismissed from Leeuwenkuil shortly after his co-workers elected him as trade union representative.
According to CSAAWU, Leeuwenkuil provided no reason for the dismissal.
For years, CSAAWU has been campaigning internationally to raise awareness about the working conditions on South Africa’s farms.
In 2017 the trade union was awarded the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of the labour movement, “due to their constant struggle for the underpaid, overworked and discriminated workers of South African vineyards”.
“It is an insult to the farmers that an overseas newspaper see a poor farmworker as newsworthy”, says Trevor Christians.
The disciplinary hearing is scheduled for Thursday, October the 24th.If Claudene van Wyk is dismissed, CSAAWU vows to take action.
“If the company goes forth with this we have to go for full boycott. We cannot allow that poor people are scared to talk about their lives”, says Trevor Christians.
Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards
Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards has been operated by the current owner family since 1852 and is one of the South African wine producers selling the largest quantities at Systembolaget.
In 2016, Leeuwenkuil was one of the South African wine producers that were scrutinized in the documentary Bitter Grapes.
In the spring of 2018, new reports of substandard working conditions at Leeuwenkuil’s farms surfaced, which Arbetet Global reported on. The Norwegian public alcohol monopoly Vinmonopolet responded by initiating a more active follow-up of the working conditions. Systembolaget did not implement any additional measures but in comments given to Arbetet Global conceded that it wished improvements at Leeuwenkuil could be sped up.