A worker loads wine bottles onto a conveyor belt at the Rostberg bottling plant near Cape Town. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

For centuries, workers in South Africa’s undulating vineyards were paid some of their salary in wine, a disastrous arrangement called the “dop” system that was outlawed in the early 1960s. The practice unofficially continued for decades under apartheid and has tapered off under strict new laws. But a new film investigating labor conditions in South Africa’s wine industry alleges that the legacy of the dop system — and many other old inequities — continue to haunt farmworkers today.

Danish journalist Tom Heinemann, director of the film “Bitter Grapes,” visited wine farms in South Africa’s bucolic Western Cape, where he found that some workers were allegedly being paid less than the minimum wage, exposed to pesticides, consuming dangerous amounts of alcohol and discouraged from joining unions, among other problems.

Scandinavia is a major importer of South Africa’s affordable wine, and the film prompted at least one Danish wholesaler to remove the wines from Robertson Winery, a popular South African company featured in the film, from its supermarkets while the company looks into the matter.

Falling foul of Scandinavian consumers is a grim prospect for South African winemakers, and members of the industry have come out swinging. Robertson posted on its website a letter from its Swedish importer defending the company’s treatment of its workers. Other industry bodies have questioned the accuracy of some of the film’s claims, and emphasized that it reported only on conditions at a few farms.

“This reflects a very narrow narrative of the progress that the wine industry had made in promoting and respecting farmworker rights,” said a statement issued by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trade Association, an initiative that accredits farms meeting ethical trade requirements, and which also comes under the scanner in the film.

But labor activists argue that industry’s “few rotten apples” response to criticism is an old one, and that the problems highlighted in the film have been around for years.

In 2011, a Human Rights Watch report found that workers on wine and fruit farms in Western Cape lacked adequate housing, safety equipment and basic labor rights, and noted that they were among the lowest wage earners in the country. In 2012, farmworkers staged strikes and protests in Western Cape against low wages, and this year, workers at Robertson Winery have been striking since August, again over pay.

The history of wine in South Africa is long and, for quite some time, dark. The first vines were planted in the gardens of the Dutch East India Company in the early 1650s, after Dutch colonizer Jan van Riebeeck landed in the Cape to set up a refreshment station for company ships traveling between the Netherlands and Asia. When the vines finally bore fruit, Van Riebeeck wrote in his diary: “Today, praise be to God, wine was made for the first time from Cape grapes.”

The colony that Van Riebeeck founded in the Cape ran on slavery, and slaves worked some of the land still producing wine today. Later, after slavery was abolished, farmworkers still faced repressive conditions, including the dop system. That situation did not improve under apartheid, and as the country grew increasingly isolated under that brutal regime, South African products, including wine, were boycotted.

Since the end of apartheid, the country’s wines have staged a major comeback overseas, gaining a strong foothold in Europe and recently making inroads into new markets such as China. After centuries of white ownership, several black-owned firms have also emerged under the broader national effort to bring equality to the previously white-controlled economy.  Today, South Africa is the world’s eighth largest wine producer by volume, and generates about 300,000 jobs.

In a country where more than a quarter of the nation is unemployed, that’s no small thing. But winemakers say they are struggling as input costs rise and they try to remain competitive in the low-cost bracket. “The problem is that when you’ve locked yourself in as a low-cost supplier, you’re vulnerable,” says Stephen Rannekleiv, a global beverage analyst with Rabobank. “They’re under a lot of cost stress.”

As that pressure continues, workers and employers may struggle to find a solution to long-simmering tensions anytime soon.

Heinemann thinks South Africa needs “a good discussion” about the working conditions lurking in the scenic vineyards that tourists flock to. “I saw housing that was literally falling apart. … I saw people who had to live off water from a drain, a ditch alongside a road. … I saw very, very depressing things,” he said during an interview on South African radio this week.

“My aim is not to shut down the South African industry,” he said. “It is to bring out everything into the open.”

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