The vineyard’s silent minority




The San Andreas Fault crosses California’s Coachella Valley, right along the centre of the Little San Bernardinos mountain. It’s easy to spot; a vibrant strip of greenery against an otherwise bare expanse of rock. But the valley was an explosive place to be for an entirely different reason in June 2005. It was here that a group of female Latino vineyard workers were awarded a $1.05 million settlement, one of the largest discrimination settlements in the agriculture industry.

The workers, mostly Hispanic women, had allegedly been sexually harassed while working at Rivera Vineyards, including one who said she was raped. When a longtime employee had complained about the harassment, she and her crew were fired. Other women complained they were excluded from a number of jobs at the vineyard because of their gender. The complaints went as far back as 1989.

Rivera Vineyards denied the allegations, but agreed to pay compensation, ‘as a practical business decision to avoid the cost of litigation.’ Santos Albarran, representing the Equal Employment Commission who brought the case, was sanguine. ‘This was far from an isolated incident. In the farmworker industry, there is fear of retaliation that stops people speaking out. A lot has to do with the language barrier, of course, but in such a close-knit industry, there’s a fear also of being blackballed.’

The history of immigration in wine is given a glossy sheen. Grapes are recalcitrant plants, doing their best with over 1,500 sunshine hours per year, which guarantees that most wine regions are hospitable, temperate, beautiful; the vines out front, the creek out back, welcoming to one and all. It seems the perfect example of an industry that is not only nourished and sustained by immigration, but that owes its very existence to the assimilation of new communities into faraway countries.

If it wasn’t for Dutch settlers and their immaculate knowledge of drainage channels, the Médoc would still be a damp, inhospitable swampland. If it wasn’t for the Spanish establishing missions in Sonoma in the 19th century, California might be growing nothing but table grapes. If it wasn’t for German refugees fleeing religious strife back home in the 1830s, winemaking skills might never have arrived in Australia. Chateau Margaux? In Greek hands. The Rothschild dynasty? German-Jewish émigrés. Robert Mondavi? Son of Italian sharecroppers and immigrant miners. Shall I go on?

But there’s a scandal in the wine industry that these cosy examples ignore. It’s not the treatment of immigrants that is the stain on the industry. That accolade falls to the voiceless thousands of seasonal workers; the temporary labour upon which vineyards are heavily reliant but frequently contemptuous of.  It just so happens that the vast majority are also outsiders.


Grapes are an agricultural product, which makes this working structure in some ways inevitable. Eva Fricke, manager at Weingut Josef Leitz in Rüdesheim, Germany, speaks for many when she says, 'Agriculture and viticulture rely on flexible labour because of the dependency on the weather. Especially for high quality estates, it is extremely important to work 'with the season' and that is only possible if you have access to workers at the right time of the year.’

Tom Shelton at Joseph Phelps Winery in Napa further explains, ‘As Napa concentrates on premium wine production, we need more hand vine care, year round. That means workers who are prepared to go out and do it.’

As the global market gets intensely competitive, vineyards need to keep their costs down, and so more and more have a small core team through the year but turn to short-term labour, either employed directly or through agencies, for the busier periods. And as local staff are increasingly unwilling to do hard manual labour for low pay, less choosy immigrant workers become essential.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it’s estimated that around 30-40% of the world’s vineyard workers are temporary staff, and therefore more likely to be unprotected by contracts than their full-time counterparts. This means 40% of vineyard workers may be at risk of living with excessive working hours, exposure to health risks and zero job security. On top of that they are more likely to be victims of verbal abuse, racism, discrimination and sexual and racial harassment. And the very nature of their jobs – and frequent language barriers – means the promotion ladder is likely to be off the agenda.

The nationalities inevitably change with the location. In northern Europe, most migrant workers are from Poland and Romania, in southern Europe the workers mainly come from Morocco and north Africa. California looks to Mexico and Central America. Australia by and large employs backpackers working through agencies and can for the sake of argument be considered to keep its hands fairly clean.

The wages for grape pickers have always been low, bordering minimum wage, and in many cases going below. The opening of the labour laws with the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU will ease conditions, as will movements in the US to improve the lot of the thousands of illegal Mexican workers.  Witold Wrodarczyk of CE Staffing (a UK-based Polish job agency) explains why. ‘Previously, as employers were recruiting workers illegally anyway, they did not care about the minimum wage. Now the legal framework requires them to be above board in all matters and I am sure that police will pursue illegal employers where before they may have turned a blind eye because someone has to pick the grapes. This is what happened in the UK – before 2004 everybody understood that without illegal workers farms would not be able to exist, whereas now, as Poles can work legally, the police are less tolerant’.

But even with the right paperwork, living conditions can be a problem. In Napa, the vast majority of the migrants who arrive each year have to fend for themselves when it comes to accommodation. Demand far outstrips supply and funds are desperately short. This means crowding into rented garages, apartments, trailers and cheap hotel rooms. Others camp in parks or by canals. In 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle published details of vineyard workers who were living in cardboard shacks at night, or in tin huts that were dangerously overheating during the intense summer.   

The traditional issue in South Africa was the wine industry paying poor black workers with wine; the dop – or tot – system (a ‘dop’ being a measure of wine) that created huge social issues around alcoholism. It is now illegal but still goes on in remoter areas, so much so that the western Cape has some of the highest levels of foetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

But the main focus today is on the balance of power. The Black Association of the Wine & Spirit Industry (BAWSI) outlined in its charter: "We, the members of Bawsi, declare for all to know: That the Wine and Spirit Industry is owned and managed by whites. That people of colour had been deliberately excluded from participation as capitalists in the industry, but to participate as exploited workers. That formal and/or technical skills are primarily vested in whites and that the industry is managed by whites.’ 

A landmark for worker’s rights came in 2002 with the long overdue establishment of the Wine Industry Ethical Trade Association (WIETA). Created following pressure from UK supermarkets and initially focusing on South Africa, WIETA is a non-profit organisation monitoring and promoting fair working conditions, primarily for the 130,000 seasonal and temporary workers in the country. Its members include government, trade unions, retailers such as Tescos, large scale producers and smaller wineries. In July 2004, Winecorp became the first company to be accredited by WIETA, through its leading programmes at wineries such as Spier in Stellenbosch. A number of Cape wine farmers have also established joint ventures with their workers to give them part ownership and to transfer skills in wine farm management as well as winemaking.

Pete Lewis, the CEO of WIETA, gave some idea of the scale of the problem. ‘Most failures come in health and safety, but many employers are not even aware they are infringing the rules – not knowing, for example, that certain types of treatments to the grapes can be harmful if administered without protective clothing.’

Fair Trade is another initiative that has done a lot to see better working conditions in vineyards. Traidcraft bottles a Chilean wine, Vinos Los Robles, made by a co-operative in the Curico valley, 200km south of Santiago, which pays a guaranteed good price and is encouraging small-scale farmers from a poor region to become members and grow better vines. Fair Trade is supporting technical and business improvements for the co-op and its members.

Sainsbury’s saw a 70% increase in sales during its Fair Trade Fortnight this year compared to 2005, and now carry five fair trade wines in their permanent range (one of which is their best-selling Chilean red). The Fair Trade-certified wine market is worth £7 million, and has grown by 220% in value since the first wines were launched in 2004.

There are around 80 Fair Trade wines in the UK market, with sales set to rise steadily – all of which is good news for your average seasonal worker. They might never know that the wine you buy makes a difference to their daily working life, but it’s likely to be consumer pressure that ensures wine producers take the problem of migrant labour seriously.

How much do they earn?
South Africa – R800-1000/month during harvest (€90-€115/month)
Greece - €35/ day
Spain and France – €45/ day (up to €65/day during harvest)
California – $6.75/hour

A worker’s story
Samira, Moroccan worker, Bordeaux
’I came to Bordeaux eight years ago for 15 days work as a grape picker, and have stayed ever since. I’m lucky as I have a permanent job with a good company. But I’m the exception, and it’s in my contract that when I’m not in the vines or the cellar, I have to do the ironing, or the housework. Most of the Moroccans I know here find it very difficult to get work year-round, and end up working when they can, where they can, sometimes going between other agricultural harvests around the country. I wouldn’t wish this job on anyone – it’s hard work, in all weathers, you have to be very physically fit to do it – and it’s badly paid. But when you don’t have a choice, you have to get on with it. I have no education and can’t read or write, and that’s the same for most of the Moroccans I know here. And I don’t get to improve my French, as I’m alone in the vineyards for most of the year. I wouldn’t ask my employer for time off to go to lessons, as I know what the answer would be. I have only had a pay rise once in eight years, and for that I had to cry. I’m 37 and I’m single, and there’s little chance of finding a husband, but if I could leave tomorrow, I would. But I’m lucky, because I get paid holidays – if you are doing this work without a contract or guaranteed salary, it must be hell.’

A vineyard owner
Tom Shelton, Joseph Phelps Vineyards, Napa
’Our company donated valuable land to the County of Napa for the purpose of constructing suitable housing for migrant workers.  Last summer, I solicited Governor Arnold with a letter asking him to make good on a campaign promise to permit driver’s licenses for migrant workers, legal and otherwise.  This letter was leaked to a right wing organisation that caused me nothing but grief for several months.  The issue brings up all kinds of xenophobic reactions, but these workers are a fact of life. The reality is that we need them, they are performing valuable and important work that no one else wants to do. We need to find a way not only for them to live here legally, but to received the respect they deserve for doing a difficult job.’

The Warning
Witold Wrodarczyk, CE Staffing (UK-based Polish job agency)
’Some recruitments are carried out by illegal ‘agents’ who offer the vineyards a free recruitment service, charging the work-seekers for the service or offering an employment business service where they deduct money from the pay. Recently, in June 2006, Polish and Italian police released 113 Polish farm workers from ”labour camps“ in Apulia, Italy. Their employment was closer to slavery; they earned 2 to 5 euro per hour but big amounts were deducted from their salaries. They were watched by armed guards and they were not allowed to leave the camp without a permit. Italian police estimate up to 200,000 Eastern European workers work in similar conditions on farms (not just vineyards).‘