Opinionista Ivo Vegter 29 January 2013

Boycott calls are simple-minded

At the time of writing, 59% of Guardian readers who voted in a poll on whether they’d boycott South African wine said ‘yes’. It is a simple-minded reaction to a counter-productive call upon people who like to think of themselves as ‘ethical consumers’.

According to Alex Duval Smith, writing in the UK Guardian, “striking workers” have issued a plea to foreign consumers to boycott South African wine, grapes and other fruit, like apples.

Like most such calls, the idea is silly. It will be counter-productive if successful, and betrays ignorance not only of the facts of the matter and the local context in South Africa, but of basic arithmetic.

For newspapers, of course, numbers are not a strong suit, and they love adding statistically useless polls to their more emotive reportage, because that way they appear to be responsive to the vox populi while their sales floor gets another click magnet to sell to advertisers. This, the Guardian did too. The number of readers who felt strongly enough about this particular boycott call to indicate they’d heed it stood at 59% when the poll closed, up from 55% a day after it was published.

The boycott call was reportedly made by Bawusa, which is the Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa, one of almost 200 unions registered with the Department of Labour. It is affiliated with the Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (Consawu), the smallest of South Africa’s four trade union federations.

Bawsi, in turn, is the Black Association of the Wine and Spirits Industry, founded in 1999 under its present leader, Reverend Nosey Pieterse. This appears to be the source of frequent confusion in the media, which often refers to Bawusa, also led by Pieterse, as the Black Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa.

Bawsi is a non-profit organisation concerned with worker empowerment and industry transformation. It appears to mean well, but in its 14-year existence it hasn’t got around to publishing any objectives or achievements.

Bawusa told reporters it represents some 6,000 out of a total of 257,000 workers it claims are employed in the wine industry. The Guardian itself notes that some 500,000 farm workers are employed in the Western Cape altogether. In short, with 1.2% of the labour force paying dues, Bawusa isn’t exactly the sole and undisputed standard-bearer of farm workers’ rights.

(In its defence, in communist circles it is derided for being a bunch of capitalist sell-outs. To be fair, so are the ANC, Cosatu and the SACP. The denouncers, who go by the grand moniker of Workers International Vanguard League, aren’t exactly a major democratic power bloc, and set a record by garnering the lowest ever total of 672 votes in the last South African election in which they qualified to take part, in 1999.)

But back to the boycott. While emotionally satisfying to both dissatisfied workers and judgemental consumers in the rich world, it will be counter-productive for two reasons.

First, if farms earn less, they are likely to pay less. Not because they want to pay less, but because only successful businesses can afford to employ workers at high wages. You can’t pay someone if the money simply isn’t there. Chances are, a boycott call will result in layoffs. Some farmers may even, to coin a phrase, sell the farm.

Now the attentive reader might think I’m just repeating stock capitalist rhetoric because I’m an ideologue, and think the Guardian is a sanctimonious rag with socialist tendencies. That’s true, but immaterial.

Let’s do what that august newspaper didn’t bother to do: some elementary arithmetic. We’ll use their numbers, lest we be accused of being unfair to them.

The Guardian claims workers are demanding £10.62 (about R150) a day, more than double the current wage of £4.92 (about R70).

You’ll be lucky to pay this sort of amount for a taxi in London, so to Guardian readers this sounds like a pittance. However, the same is not true for Grabouw, De Doorns or the Hex River Valley. In rural South Africa, the cost of living is rather lower than in the sort of post codes Guardian journalists and readers lunch. Farm wages are indeed low, and workers are entirely entitled to feel aggrieved and try to negotiate better pay, but it doesn’t help to stir up the outrage of well-heeled Westerners by citing low-sounding wage numbers entirely out of context.

Instead of comparing the real cost of living in London and De Doorns, here’s the context the Guardian did add, perhaps in an effort to cast the farmers who pay such meagre wages as filthy rich exploiters of the working class: the fruit and wine sector is worth £850 million (R12 billion) a year.

As it turns out, this bit of supposed context is not very flattering to the Guardian.

As we’ve noted, Bawusa claims there are 257,000 wine farm workers, and by the Guardian’s own account the fruit and wine sector as a whole employs 500,000 workers in the Western Cape.

There are 249 working days in an average year. Multiply the daily wage demand, the annual working days, and the number of workers together, and we get somewhere north of £1.3 billion, or R18.7 billion in Mandela money.

How, pray tell, does the Guardian propose a £850-million a year industry pay a £1.3-billion wage bill? The newspaper’s editors may just have thought this discrepancy poses no problem, since most of its readers are probably employed by the government, which just prints money when it runs out, but it is rather harder to conjure up a few extra billions if you’re a farmer in the developing world.

Perhaps this financial feat can be achieved by, for example, only paying workers for six months of the year, and leaving them destitute when they’re not needed on the farm. But even then, farmers won’t have much left over to pay for fertiliser, pesticide, seed, farm machinery, winery maintenance, cheese-and-cracker shindigs for British tourists, artsy labels, and the efficient global distribution network that gets South African wines, grapes and apples to suburban London supermarkets at prices that are competitive with the equally fine produce of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal, Australia and other places where fruit trees and vineyards thrive.

On the face of it, then, the Guardian’s uncritical acceptance of the claims by unions on behalf of workers appears to fall short of the sort of basic journalistic diligence that doesn’t even require reporters on the ground.

The second reason why a boycott call is counter-productive is that it creates a perverse incentive for farmers not to raise wages unless and until all their peers do so too. This is a reversal of the tragedy of the commons problem. What good does it do you agree to a raise if you’re still a South African wine farmer subject to a boycott by nurse Nellie Whiffnose from Hammersmith, who read her Guardian and jumped at the chance to appear “conscious” to her bridge club peers by “doing something” on behalf of 6,000 union members 6,000 miles away locked in a wage dispute about which she knows, frankly, nothing?

Of course, this sort of disincentive for farmers to reach individual deals with their workers, while disadvantaging both farmers and workers, plays right into the hands of the unions, which openly seek to consolidate their power by disempowering workers and bargaining only on behalf of the collective.

A boycott that forces farmers to recognise them as the sole worker representatives with the (theoretical) power to call it off suits unions just fine. After all, the vast majority of the farm workers of the Western Cape chose not to join any unions at all. Harnessing clueless foreign newspapers to convince their equally ill-informed readers to boycott products in the hope of extorting collective agreements from farmers is a great way for small-time unions to pressure reluctant workers to organise, too, lest they find themselves excluded from collective bargaining agreements.

Don’t get me wrong. Unions have every right to exist, even if they represent a minority of workers. While often claiming credit for improvements in living standards they did little to bring about, and routinely pushing propaganda against the very capitalism that did, unions can play an important role in helping employees negotiate fair wages and working conditions.

Workers also have every right to go on strike, even if the strike is “unprotected”. Especially if the strike is unprotected, in fact, since protection arguably infringes on the rights of employers to respond to unreasonable demands by agreeing to discontinue the employment relationship and instead incur the cost of finding other job-seekers who are more keen on paying work and more suited to the needs of the employer.

But none of this makes a simplistic boycott call a good idea, other than that it might give the union greater powers of extortion to wield against employers and non-members alike. A thoughtless boycott, which inevitably persists long after the actual strike has been called off, can only harm consumers, producers, and the very workers the unions claim to represent.

The Guardian’s reporters might have reached the same conclusion, if only they could be bothered to test their emotive responses and ideological biases against the basic arithmetic they were taught at school.

As for nurse Nellie in Notting Hill, or wherever our fictional British civil servant receives her Guardian of a morning, she’d be well advised, for her own good and that of poor people in the developing world, to ignore the barrage of ill-informed boycott calls with which her paper bombards the modern “ethical consumer”.

There’s nothing ethical about innumerate ideology. DM


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