Most of us don’t spend much time thinking about the people involved in getting wine to our glasses. Planting, cultivating, harvesting, making and transporting all require time and skill from people who ensure we can enjoy our wine at its peak. Many of the faces behind these processes are largely unknown and the conditions they work in often unseen.
This was brought home to me by a vineyard manager at a recent dinner I attended. He had taken over a vineyard in southern England the previous summer and was shocked by the state of the seasonal workers brought in to pick grapes at harvest time. Originally from Nepal or Kazakhstan, they were driven to the vineyard in a minibus, they looked generally tired, dishevelled and poorly fed (despite the vineyard providing food and doing their best to look after them), then at the end of the day got back in the bus and disappeared.
While the use of seasonal workers is common practice in agriculture, the question he raised was ‘How do I make sure we do this differently next year?’. With contracts and payment usually made directly with the labour agency rather than the workers themselves, farmers often have no idea if the workers are paid and treated properly once they get back on the bus.
While this particular case was not a Wine Society supplier, it does highlight the risk of similar situations taking place in farms and vineyards across the globe, as well as close to home. Farmers need agricultural workers to harvest their crops, often within a very short timeframe when the fruit and veg is at its best. With the onset of climate change, the picking window is becoming harder and harder to predict. Farmers have also had to contend with the Covid-19 pandemic, conflict in Europe and an economic downturn all affecting global migration patterns and availability of people to work.
In Europe, agency workers often come from countries such as Nepal, Romania and Kazakhstan to find work – or they can also be migrants who have come to Europe to find a new life, legally or otherwise. The rights and wellbeing of these workers are often the first things to disappear when crops are in danger of being left in a field to rot and economic pressures are being felt in all areas of the supply chain. It would be naive, therefore, to assume that The Society is immune to risks of human rights and labour issues existing in our supply chain. Exploitation and abuse are often hidden, happening in secret on farms and vineyards that have the best of intentions; a recent Oxfam report found around 1,500 cases of worker exploitation of varying degrees across four main winemaking regions in Italy.*
Given these urgent challenges, what are we doing at The Wine Society to tackle human rights issues in wine? Our ambitious aim is to have the world’s most socially and environmentally sustainable wine supply chain by 2030, and we have already started to take active steps to make it happen. We take a zero-tolerance approach to any activity that violates human rights and it is our responsibility to prevent and mitigate the risk of such violations in our business and our supply chains. This is why we are putting such effort into our Responsible Sourcing programme.
Fortunately, we’re starting from a good place. We have great relationships with our suppliers, and have been working with many of them for a long time. Our buyers visit their regions regularly and we have processes in place to conduct quality checks and in-person audits. We now want to apply a similar process and level of due diligence to social and environmental issues, talking to our suppliers about the people they employ, and how they are maintaining global standards.
To help with this, we have developed a Social and Environmental Code of Conduct and Human Rights Policy that outline our commitments and our expectations of suppliers. Suppliers sign up to our requirements which are based on the International Labour Organisation (ILO) foundations, which include:
• no forced labour, child labour or discrimination
• actively promoting worker representation and channels for reporting grievances
• decent standards of accommodation where provided
• living wages
• recognising the rights of local communities to clean air and water.
Our next step is to roll out a continuous improvement programme across our wine supply chain. This will involve conducting a human rights risk assessment, starting with our own-label wines, to identify where the greatest risk of human rights and labour issues lie and then working with those suppliers to prevent and mitigate them.
Although we’re still developing the best approach, this may include worker surveys whereby people in our supply chain can communicate directly with The Wine Society through accessible technology, independent audits and working with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to support suppliers and workers according to the local need.
The Society's approach is to work together with our suppliers, providing encouragement and support – rather than judging or penalising. This is the only way we can raise standards across the sector. It is also why we are researching how best to set up an online forum that will enable suppliers to more easily talk to each other, learn and share best practice.
We are about to roll out an independent whistleblowing line across our entire global supply chain. If any worker in our supply chain sees wrongdoing, they can phone the line, talk to someone in their language and report the incident, which will be investigated by The Society. We are also supporting The Sustainable Wine Roundtable, a global collaborative platform for sustainability across the industry.
We want our members to know when they buy their wine from us, not only is the quality and price the best it can be, but that it is made responsibly, and by someone who is benefiting from a fair and sustainable wine industry.
A model for success
One of our suppliers who is tackling human rights and labour issues head on in Spain is Sumarroca, who produce The Society’s Cava Reserva Brut.
Sumarroca partners with the Mercè Fontanilles Foundation in their scheme to give young migrants a solid footing. The scheme supports them with cultural and language lessons, as well as connecting them with companies like Sumarroca, where they work in the vineyards and winery while being encouraged in their professional development. They have been warmly welcomed (the cultural enrichment goes both ways) and prove to be a new stream of potential viticultural talent, perhaps creating vineyard managers of the future.
*The Workers Behind Sweden’s Italian Wine: An illustrative Human Rights Impact Assessment of Systembolaget’s Italian wine supply chains. Oxfam, 15/09/2021.