It has been a taxing year for former vineyard worker Wendy Linnet and her family. After the death of her husband Raymond in March this year, Linnet says that she and her family are now at risk of losing their home of 30 years at the famed Groot Constantia wine estate, which is located on the scenic foothills of Table Mountain.
In stark contrast to the Linnets’, Groot Constantia has enjoyed a stellar year. Seven Groot Constantia wines took home double platinum honours at the this year’s Top 100 SA Wine Awards to add to the estate’s long list of awards. Plaudits for Groot Constantia have also come from further afield.
Earlier this year, the estate was named as one of the World Wildlife Fund’s Conservation Champions of the year and was commended for its water-saving initiatives.
But Groot Constantia’s good fortunes don’t mirror the experiences of Linnet and other workers at the estate who spoke to New Frame.
Delicately built and soft-spoken, Linnet, 48, has lived at Groot Constantia since she was 18. She and Raymond raised their three children at the worker housing compound just beyond the estate’s renowned Jonkershuis Restaurant.
Linnet bottled and labelled wine at the estate’s cellar, and trimmed the vines on its sprawling vineyards, for 18 years until, in 2016, a vine recoiled and punctured her eye.
According to Linnet, doctors at the time told her she was lucky not to have lost her eyesight. Her broad, ever-present smile drops when she says that she was never compensated for the injury.
Groot Constantia claims to have no record of her injury.
Linnet says she suffered her final indignity when she received a R250 Spur meal voucher in recognition of her nearly two decades of service to the estate.
But Jean Naude, Groot Constantia’s general manager, told New Frame that workers are paid a week’s wages for a decade of service, two weeks’ wages for 15 years and three weeks’ wages for 20 years. Rewards, according to him, also include Christmas hampers and quarterly socials with a dinner and prizes.
In the last financial year, Groot Constantia reported a turnover of R57 million, with a R6-million surplus.
In the last financial year, Groot Constantia reported a turnover of R57 million, with a R6-million surplus. According to Groot Constantia, this surplus was reinvested into the estate.
Linnet still lives with her children and two grandchildren at Groot Constantia. But according to her, shortly after Raymond’s death, she was told that she and her family had 30 days to vacate their home. Raymond was 61 and had worked in the vineyards for 28 years.
Naude told New Frame that Groot Constantia has never issued an eviction notice to Linnet, calling her allegation a “rumour” made with “malicious intent”.
The Extension of Security of Tenure Act (ESTA) sets out the conditions under which farm workers’ rights of occupancy are protected. Among others, if a worker has lived on a farm for more than 10 years and is a former employee of that farm, their rights of occupation may not be terminated, regardless of whether they still work on the farm.
Historically, farmers have compounded the rights of women and families who live and work on farms with those of their husbands and fathers. The practice of evicting women and families after husbands and fathers are either dismissed or die led the Constitutional Court to a landmark decision in 2016 in the Klaase matter.
The Court held that the subordination of the rights of women living on farms to their husbands “… perpetuate[s] the indignity suffered by many women similarly placed, whose rights as occupiers ought to be secured”.
Naude says that while Groot Constantia has “no intention to undermine the rights of the workers protection under [ESTA]”, the legislation is also designed to protect the interests of farm owners.
According to him, every eviction notice served on workers by Groot Constantia has been ESTA compliant.
But Boithumelo Ramehlele of the Commercial, Stevedoring, Agricultural and Allied Workers Union (CSAAWU) believes that the rights of women working at Groot Constantia are being undermined by the estate’s training programme.
Workers at the estate receive courses on how to be a “voluit” (full/complete) man or woman. According to Naude, these courses are intended to “manage” and “eliminate” the “social challenges that was (sic) prevalent in the Groot Constantia Community”.
The estate employed Philani Training and Development Solutions to administer the courses to workers to change the “mindset of dependence” that Naude says characterised labour on farms in the past.
[W]omen … were … taught how to make themselves “attractive” to their husbands.
The curriculum for women includes cooking and cleaning lessons. Several women who completed the courses told New Frame they were also taught how to make themselves “attractive” to their husbands; a lesson which includes how to wear makeup.
The objective of the “complete woman” course, which includes a section on “self-image”, is, according to Philani material, to “improve the learners’ understanding of themselves and their families to enable them to reach their full potential”.
Ramehlele says that the estate’s intention to train women to satisfy their husbands’ needs shows that their rights are confined to the constraints of their marriages.
An October 2017 audit of Groot Constantia by the Wine and Agricultural Ethical Trading Association (WIETA) took issue with the quality of water in workers’ homes. New Frame visited Groot Constantia workers in their homes in April this year.
According to them, tap water on the estate has stained their clothes and made the enamel of their bathtubs electric blue. The water, according to them, leaves a bitter taste after drinking and dry skin after bathing. “It is like I bathed in Jik,” says Julia Bennet, 31, a cleaner on the farm who has lived at Groot Constantia since she was 9-years-old.
Naude says that work to address the water quality was scheduled to begin in late May, almost eight months after the WIETA audit. He insists that the water has been tested and is fit for human consumption, and that all homes at the estate, including his own, use the same water.
Workers took to the leafy suburban streets leading into the estate in late March this year to picket their working conditions. Shane Jacobs, 58, who has worked at Groot Constantia for 22 years, said the picket was intended “to show the outside world what goes into a barrel of wine – it is not as shiny as it looks”.
Several workers told New Frame that Groot Constantia management has since told them that the picket, as well as any negative media attention, is likely to negatively affect their year-end bonuses. Naude, however, says that the estate is opposed to the intimidation of its workers.
Critics of recent amendments to South Africa’s labour legislation have raised concerns that the Department of Labour does not have the capacity to enforce the laws. According to CSAAWU general secretary Trevor Christians, the union regularly encounters neglect of basic labour legislation on farms across Western Cape.
He says the experiences of workers at Groot Constantia should sound a warning regarding workers’ rights.