Wine sweatshop will be reality

27 June, 2008

Anyone who wears Primark clothing will have been shocked by the revelations in this week's Panorama. Working undercover, the BBC current affairs programme discovered that three of the chain's Indian suppliers use sub-contracted child labour to finish their goods.

Primark explicitly forbids such exploitation in its suppliers' code of practice and has fired the companies concerned, but it's still been left wiping


off its corporate face.

Do such things happen in the wine business, too? Are children under 10 sent out into the vineyards to prune or pick grapes? The answer is generally no, but it does happen. I've seen under-age pickers in South Africa, Bulgaria, Portugal, South America and even Burgundy, but were they


or merely earning some money at weekends? Hard to tell, but I'm inclined to the latter view.

The wine trade doesn't always treat its workers well

and I'm not only talking about underpaid off-licence managers . The news that the mother of a 17-year-old girl who died of heat stroke as a result of pruning vines in 90ļF temperatures in California has taken legal action against West Coast Grape Farming and its vineyard contractors, Merced Farm Labo r, should give us all pause for thought.

Was Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez given appropriate access to water and shade during her nine-and-a-half-hour shift? It would appear not. She was also under-age. The connection between bargain basement prices and cheap labour is well established in business. Indeed, you could argue that the one is predicated upon the other. Primark (whose suppliers were illegally cutting corners) has made

its name by providing accessible fashion at low prices. However much it may talk about ethical trading, part of the success of Primark (and many other companies who use cheap labour) is based on paying people very little to work long hours.

There's a link of sorts between low prices and Vasquez Jimenez too. According to reports, she was working in vineyards

part-owned by Fred Franzia, the man behind Two Buck Chuck, one of the West Coast's best known sub-entry point wines. Cheap wines don't get


shelf by accident.

Along the production and retail chain, margins have to be shaved. We may choose not to think about it, but this has a direct bearing on the quality (or lack of it) of people's lives.

Compared with the clothing industry, the wine business has a good record when it comes to employment practices. It is surely significant that Vasquez Jimenez's death has prompted outrage in California. Even the hawkish state governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has stated : "We have to make sure

this doesn't happen again." The California Division of Occupational Safety

& Health plans to revoke the contractor's licence and says

criminal charges may follow.

Would such a thing happen in China, a place where life is cheap and unions are non-existent? Frankly, I doubt it. According to James Kynge's excellent book, China Shakes The World, more than 700 million Chinese live on less than $2 a day. This, he says, "provides a huge pool of labour

willing to work at pre-industrial wages". No wonder western companies outsource

production there.

You are probably thinking

that China doesn't make much wine at the moment. In terms of fine wine, this may be true, but China is

the world's sixth largest producer. And it can only get bigger and better.

Berry Bros & Rudd recently published a Future of Wine Report, which predicted what the wine world would look like in 2058.

It thinks China "will be the world's leading producer of volume wine by 2058

... With the right soil, low labour costs and soaring domestic demand, China is set to take the world of wine by storm."

This may be true, although the quality of most Chinese wine is poor at the moment. But it's the comment about "low labour costs" that concerns me. The world of wine is increasingly splitting into two camps.

One is made up of countries that can meet the margin and volume requirements of supermarkets (Argentina, South Africa and, at a pinch, eastern Europe, the

US and Chile); the

other is just about everyone else.

For the latter group, £3.49 and below is a price point that is becoming harder and harder to meet. But the fact remains that there is still a market for wines at this end of the

spectrum. Even South Africa and Argentina (countries with weak currencies and cheap labour) will struggle to compete with China when it comes to producing bargain basement wine in the future.

My prediction is that China will become the wine world's very own sweat shop over the next 20 years. It is something we should think about as we consider the death of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez.

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