Industry Issues

The Wine Industry’s Human Rights Challenge

It’s time to scrutinize the significant labor issues facing the wine sector—and explore the preliminary steps being taken to mitigate them

Workers at a Reyneke Wines vineyard in South Africa pass crates of grapes
Wine industry professionals weigh in on the future of workers’ rights. Photo courtesy of Reyneke Wines.

“Modern developments within the wine sector have introduced a range of human rights challenges,” argues Tom Owtram, the cofounder and general manager of the Sustainable Wine Roundtable (SWR), a global platform for collaboration to advance sustainability across the wine sector. “The industry has been slow to address them proactively, largely because it has not faced the same level of scrutiny from campaigners, activists, and journalists as other sectors have.” 

A common thread among these challenges is their disproportionate impact on the lower tiers of the supply chain. The tragic deaths of four pickers in Champagne during the last harvest, for instance, exposed how soaring temperatures, exacerbated by climate change, can pose severe health risks to workers.

“What happened in Champagne is so egregious because the top Champagne brands are all owned by huge companies,” says Jason Glaser, the CEO of La Isla Network, an organization focused on occupational health research and consultancy for workers in warm climates. “They [should] get their act together to make sure workers are protected.” 

According to Charles Goemaere, the director of the Comité Champagne, the region has tasked a select group of professionals with implementing new measures aimed at ensuring the safety of grape-pickers in the face of the changing climate, as well as addressing broader concerns regarding accommodation, recruitment practices, and working conditions. 

Indeed, human rights concerns within the global wine sector, not just Champagne or France, now extend beyond the risks of harvesting grapes in extreme heat, particularly as the industry becomes increasingly reliant on migrant labor to address a shortage of local workers.

A Fragile Workforce

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) reports that there are nearly 170 million migrant workers worldwide, with a significant presence in the agricultural industry. Neill Wilkins, the head of the migrant workers program at IHRB, asserts that currently, one in every 20 workers is a migrant.

A recent investigation by German broadcaster DW shed light on how some grape pickers in Champagne may endure minimal rest between picking sessions or live in deplorable conditions, a scenario that’s not isolated to a single region or country. Italian association No Cap, which combats human rights abuses in agriculture, claims that the exploitation of migrant laborers is systematically practiced in vineyards across Italy, including in Chianti, the Asti province, and Puglia. There have also been reports of abuses in South Africa and Brazil, among others.

The growing reliance on service providers, who supply wineries and brands with temporary workers on demand, has compounded the challenges faced by the industry. Migrants are often required to pay substantial fees to secure employment abroad, taking out loans to cover these costs. “Payments are taken by various intermediaries for a variety of things,” explains Wilkins, “and bear little relationship to the genuine cost of delivering those services.” 

Additionally, migrants frequently encounter working and housing conditions, as well as payment arrangements, that are markedly different from what they were promised or initially agreed upon. “They might be working the first year of any contract just to pay off the cost of their recruitment,” Wilkins continues. “And they can’t leave those inhumane conditions. These are all indicators of forced labor … On top of that, they also face discrimination from the local population.”

Familia Torres workers harvest at night
Migrant workers make up a substantial portion of the wine industry’s seasonal workforce. Photo courtesy of Familia Torres.

Wineries like Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and Domaine Bousquet in Mendoza have managed to dodge the risks associated with service providers by investing in full-time employees. This approach not only helps ensure a fair treatment for vineyard workers, but also provides the wineries with a more dependable and skilled workforce.

However, the widespread adoption of this strategy encounters significant challenges that are closely tied to vineyards’ operational structure. Conventionally operated wineries tend to rely on temporary workforce as harvest seasons demand a large number of pickers within a concentrated timeframe. A reduced workforce suffices for the rest of the year, when vineyard tasks such as pruning are generally less time-sensitive. Ensuring the financial feasibility of employing pickers on a full-time basis requires a winery to undertake a thorough restructuring of its operations aimed at optimizing its workforce’s skills throughout the year.

Taking Action Through Certification

To evaluate individual initiatives, enact performance benchmarks, and enhance their practices, some wineries are turning to certifications that adopt a comprehensive approach to social and environmental sustainability. B Corp is increasingly sought after by wine brands, while Italy’s Equalitas standard (which, unlike B Corp, is aimed specifically at the wine industry) was launched in 2015 and gained significant traction in recent years.

Environmental certifications are also gradually evolving to embrace a broader view of sustainability issues. The California-based Regenerative Organic Alliance, founded in 2017, includes social responsibility criteria, while the Biodynamic Federation Demeter International—historically focused solely on biodynamic agriculture—introduced a social responsibility standard in October 2022. Initially voluntary, it became mandatory for all certifiers to implement at the beginning of this year. 

“For us, this is good news,” says Sebastián Tramon, the head of sustainability at Chile’s Emiliana Organic Vineyards, a global pioneer of sustainable viticulture. “If you address sustainability … you cannot only focus on one element of it. It’s nonsense that you treat the land and animals in a very respectful way, but then you don’t offer safe and decent conditions for the workers.”

Some wineries firmly believe that certifications are an essential and adequate tool for fostering a more socially ethical industry. “We strongly believe in certifications,” argues Anne Bousquet, whose Domaine Bousquet boasts a number of sustainability badges including B Corp and Regenerative Organic. “Mere compliance with the law may fall short, [but] aligning with these certifications provides assurance that the right strides are being made in the pursuit of corporate social responsibility improvements.”

Other producers, while generally supportive of certifying bodies, emphasize that many fail to effectively address social responsibility threats. “Not all certifications have the same level of rigorousness and scope,” says Francesc Cartanyà, the chief people officer at Familia Torres. “We must ensure they dive deep enough and set a minimum level of ambition that is high enough to tackle the main issues we are facing today.”

Headshots of Sebastian Tramon and Anne Bousquet
Sebastian Tramon, the head of sustainability at Emiliana Organic Vineyards (left), and Anne Bousquet, the co-founder of Domaine Bousquet (right), both believe that certifications can further sustainability efforts and workers’ rights. Photo (left) courtesy of Emiliana Organic Vineyards, and photo (right) courtesy of Domaine Bousquet.

The Road to Meaningful Change

The voluntary nature of certifications implies that achieving meaningful change across the entire industry requires broader efforts at a systemic level by trade organizations, retailers, and local and regional governments. In this regard, the actions of alcohol monopolies and global retailers can serve as pivotal mechanisms to effectively tackle human rights issues across the sector in the years ahead.

Owtram expects social responsibility credentials to soon become a market-access prerequisite for wineries, thereby encouraging more producers and brands to take proactive steps. “Retailers are going to make human rights a key issue and they will want to see a minimum level of performance in this area of sustainability,” he argues.

To contribute to this objective, the SWR is actively engaged in developing collaborative actions and tools for labor standards, with the specific aim to offer practical guidance to the broader global wine industry on addressing labor-related challenges. “The next steps entail a benchmarking process to assess the current state of social responsibility norms globally,” says Owtram. “This involves identifying regional variations and disparities, determining desired objectives, prioritizing areas for improvement, and establishing acceptable levels of labor and human rights requirements.”

Given the broad geographical scope and the multitude of stakeholders involved, it is expected that the project will encounter substantial obstacles in building consensus. Nevertheless, collaborative strategies such as this one are likely to represent the most effective tools for the industry in tackling labor issues on a global scale, both efficiently and comprehensively.

“We know there are challenges across the world, and the more we look, the more we may find,” says Owtram. “But this is exactly why the industry must come together to find a way forward—solutions can only be found with a collective approach.”


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Dr. Jacopo Mazzeo is a U.K.-based freelance drinks journalist, consultant, and photographer. He contributes to leading trade and consumer publications including Decanter, Wine Enthusiast, Whisky Magazine, and Good Beer Hunting. Jacopo consults on consumer trends and marketing strategies, is a former sommelier, and judges international wine, beer, and spirits competitions. Before he embraced full-time journalism, he studied musicology at the University of Bologna and took a PhD at the University of Southampton. Follow Jacopo on Instagram @jacopomazzeophoto

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