While many people have enjoyed a bottle – or two – of French champagne over the festive season, French champagne comes with a dark side: the ruthless exploitation of labour in the production of champagne. In other words, there is blood, sweat, tears, wages theft, and inhumane working conditions associated with champagne.
As a matter of fact, thousands of migrant workers come to France as “seasonal workers” (read: slave-like labour) to slug away in France’s champagne production. These workers are part of the Jekyll and Hyde face of modern slave-like conditions on the one side. While on the other side, there are record sales ($7.3bn) and stratospheric profits.
With around ten million wine-tourists annually, many of them flock to the heart of France’s champagne region – Epernay. On Epernay’s UNESCO world heritage listed Avenue de Champagne, unsuspecting customers can stroll along the Uber-chic mansions, raise a glass of champagne with its golden bubbles rising to the surface, and even take the occasional selfie. A glass of champagne is available starting at €10.- ($11.-).
Yet, behind the shiny, polished, and well-manicured tourist sites of French champagne companies lurks the shoddy reality of slave-like labour.On an innocent-looking working day in late September 2023, a mini-bus brings a new batch of Bulgarian workers to have a quick morning snack.
Meanwhile, a young Australian tourist films her boyfriend in front of a well-known champagne logo of a global champagne brand.
Back in 2022, a whopping 326 million bottles of champagne were sold, exceeding, for the first time, the total value of €6bn ($6.6bn). But the world-famous French region offers not just sparkling wine with the 2023 champagne harvest likely to be known as one of the darkest.
In autumn last year, five workers died– more than ever before – in any harvest season. Giving in to harsh working and dehumanising conditions that killed five workers in 2023, a worker ended his life with a drug overdose in his tent where workers are generally “housed”(read: dumped) in slave-like conditions.
These workers are not actual slaves as nobody was sold. Nonetheless, they live in slave-like conditions. By the end of 2023, the investigation into the overdose death was still on-going. Meanwhile, corporate media – from CNN.com to english.elpais.com, to Reuters, and to the drinks business.com – blame the five deaths on a heat wave – and nothing to do with exploitation or capitalism!
To divert attention away from the real cause, a so-called connection with the heat was, of course, suspected. Local authorities immediately closed four so-called “communal shelters”.
Naturally, these were not insanitary dumps run by (of course) outsourced labour hire firms for French luxury corporations. The free market ideology of neoliberalism likes to camouflage the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism.
Instead, the media used the positive sounding word “shelter”. However, these dumps were also framed as “illegal” tent camps. Framing these shacks “illegal” passes the blame onto workers. As if the workers had done an illegal act.
It tends to come with no explanation as to why these underpaid, overworked, and exploited workers were forced to live in squalors. This sort of rhetoric follows the well-known blame the victim tricksince blaming the victims and scapegoating often work.
Still, the public prosecutor’s office in Châlons-en-Champagne has opened two investigations on the suspicions of human trafficking. One investigation dealt with the case of 71 seasonal workers from the Ukraine. These workers, too, were “containerised”in an inhumane place.
There was also a group of a few dozen people – mostly asylum seekers from Africa as they can be easily exploited – who were stored in an equally pitilessshack in anearby town. In the village of Grauves, workers were sleeping – yet – in other “illegal”tent camps on the edge of the forest.
While officially deemed illegal, the camps were tolerated by local authorities – to the benefit of French champagne corporations. The French novelist and Nobel Prize winner Anatole France (1844-1924), expressed the function of the law under capitalism to perfection, when saying,
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
Of course, after their abhorrent deeds had been revealed, the champagne industrywas, surprise, surprise: “dismayed”. Shockingly, multi-million-dollar so-called wine “growers” had to – God-forbid – “explain” themselves.
They hired a specially commissioned PR agency to handle the so-called crisis communication (read: take attention away from corporations). Public Relations (PR) is the modern term for corporate propaganda. It stask is to disassociate French champagne corporations from the fact that they run slave-like labour.
Unsurprisingly, champagne company bosses let it be known – on request, of course – that they were “deeply affected” by the suffering of their workers – structurally separated through a system of sub-contracted labour hiring firms.
Good corporate PR tells them to express “their condolences to the families of the deceased harvest helpers”. This is a marvel of linguistic manipulation:
- Firstly, the communication strategy of being “deeply affected” is a well-known corporate PR trick – ever since Ford Pinto’s monetised business ethics. Today, this is spiced up by corporate social responsibility! Ford also sent condolences and flowers to dead customers.
- Secondly, and miraculously, the French champagne corporations’ slave labourers are now framed as “harvest helpers”. Implying: it is ever so lovely of those “helpers” to lend a helping hand during harvest. How sweet of them! Slave-like labour simply vanishes into thin air just as the criminality of the champagne corporations. In other words, paying for corporate PR (read: propaganda) is totally a money well-spent.
Corporate PR continues its magic by statingthat champagne bosses “condemn these unspeakable behaviours in the strongest possible terms”. This statement leaves it open as to whether the “unspeakable behaviour” is committed by the so-called “helpers” or by the champagne firms.
The managerial rhetoric is designed to smokescreen who the offender is. In any case, this directs– at least potentially – the attention towards workers while taking corporate bosses out of the picture.
Meanwhile, the outcome of state-capital relations assures that it “was agreed” upon. Suddenly, the corporate PR language moves passively by further taking champagne bosses out as willing actors. Yet, they agreed with French authorities to setup: “necessary measures so that such derailments do not happen again”.
Well, dead slave-like labourers and the horrific conditions they were kept in, are no more than a simple “derailment”. This rhetorical trick is designed to imply, “well, accidents happen – nothing to do with profit-greedy bosses”.
This also involves the French authorities. They got involved in a court case on labour issues, but they did so on the side of the injured parties – not of corporate interests. In general, such court cases are cases of compensation – not criminal law.
The families of the dead champagne slaves might receive some form of financial compensation. One should not expect honourable businessmen and CEOs of Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Pérignon, Taittinger, etc. to go to jail.
Instead of facing criminal prosecution, champagne corporations were asked to provide more accommodations, work should be better organized and, above all, safer and stricter rules should be imposed on so-called “service providers” in the future.
Beautiful PR talk! The potential “negligent homicide” of the workers is not a question of capitalism or corporate greed. It is a question of “better” work organisation. Even better is the fact that rhetorically, corporate PR has assured that those running slave-like labour are now seen as “service providers”.
Running slave-like labour becomes – most wondrously – a “service provider”. It implies: nice to provide such a service. Corporate PR makes it possible that the ‘bad becomes good’. It is a true marvel of corporate PR and a compliant media apparatus.
Yet, in the bitter reality of capitalism, slave-like exploitation is part of a highly profitable system run by French corporations in the champagne industry – at least in parts of this industry. This is designed to imply: “these are just a few bad apples – on the whole, capitalism is a good system”.
Yet, thanks to the so-called “migrant workers” (read: slave-like labour), who make up the majority of the approximately 120,000 “seasonal” workers, these companies can enjoy hyper-profits. And the term“seasonal” always implies precariat, i.e. low wages, wage theft, insecurity, managerial despotism, etc.
Unsurprisingly, the value of the work done by workers from abroad has exceeded that of locals for the first time in 2017. French trade unionists estimated that the share of migrants in the champagne harvest is now around two-thirds. One sign shown at a recent trade union rally read, 20% grapes – 80% exploitation.
Yet, to the more astute observer, exploitation is quite obvious.In the case of the French champagne corporations, many “makeshift” work-camps can be spotted along the roadsides – generally a bit away from the stylish mansions of the champagne CEOs. On a remote parking lot near Epernay, a high volume of traffic existseven before sunrise on a normal day during harvesting.
These are the places where no champagne tourists were pouring out of coaches. Instead, countless middle-aged champagne workers can be seen. The number plates of many buses read “BG” for Bulgaria or “TR” for Turkey. Foreign grape pickers are hurriedly shafted into waiting mini-vans. Just a few minutes later, the hunt for slave-like labour is over.
Yet, in late evenings of any of those days, several men sit or lay on cardboard boxes in a small park. These exhausted-looking workers have experiences with dehumanising work. And they have suffered – mentally, physically, and financially. One worker revealed, some days they give us 50, 60 euros. Tonight, the worker from Chad says, he will be sleeping on his cardboard box …once again.
At the beginning of October 2023, France’s CGT trade union held a rally in front of the headquarters of the champagne employers’ association. Around 100 people demonstrated showing an inflatable, two-meter-tall champagne cork saying, 20% grapes – 80% exploitation.
The CGT has been observing the so-called private employment agenciesvery critically for a long time. A large part of France’s harvest workers are employed by so-called service providers (read: slave-labour hire firms). Almost self-evidently, many of them do not take the law all that serious. Meanwhile, the myth of the law-abiding boss remains alive.
For many years, trade unionists have drawn attention over France’s big champagne houses and “their” problem of slave-like work. Unions have informed local authorities.
In 2023, a CGT official even visited France’s Minister of Labour. The official also wrote a letter to the Minister of Agriculture on the topic of“unscrupulous service providers”.
Little has happened. Perhaps, letter-writing is a middle-class self-appeasement. It cannot replace actions taken by trade unions. To make matters worse, labour hire companies were springing up like mushrooms – for there is money to be made with human suffering.
Hundreds of such “companies” (slave traders) were registered at France’s Département Marne, where most of the vineyards of the region are located.
Worse, every year, companies open new setups, specifically for the harvest and for which are closed down right after that. The law “of and for” capitalism works splendidly just as Anatole France one said.
It comes as a no surprise that many of those slave-labour hire firms did not pay social security contributions. Meanwhile, quite a few operate with wages theft – not an unusual feature of capitalism. In a deregulated state under the spell of neoliberalism, the little control that exists is handed over to so-called self-regulating markets (read: bosses).
Meanwhile, in France’s champagne region of Reims, there were just twenty inspectors for winegrowers and labour hire firms during the 2023 season. As a consequence, only around 5% of workers were ever checked.
With 95% of all workers unchecked, unscrupulous firms running slavery-like labour camps are undetected, amust for greedy capitalism.
Back in Epernay, aso-called “temporary employment agencies” called STV employs 8,000 workers every year and specifically recruits workers from abroad, including Bulgarians and Turkish workers.
Thefirm was registered in 2004 andhas been in the sights of authorities for some time now. The founder and boss is Unal Ozdemier – a Turkish passport holder who earns good (read: dirty) money by means of temporary workers slogging away in the vineyards of France’s champagne region.
His firm made €4.3million ($4.6 million) in 2016, alone. Two years later, Ozdemier paid out a dividend of €500,000 ($550.000) to his shareholders. A year later, it paid double that amount – 50 times the minimum wage!
One worker says, when the boss sees the police, he runs. Champagne workers know how the scam works. Many workers do not even get an employment contract. Some receive as little as €700 ($766) for eleven days of work, at least nine hours a day, which equates to about €7 ($7.66) per hour. This is clearly and unfairly much less than the minimum wage of €11.50 ($12.60).
But money is not the only problem. STV workers are deliberately accommodated in far-away places – usually on tent sites in neighbouring regions. Some are picked up at the campsite as early as 5:15am. And they work until 7pm. This is not fair, a young Bulgarian writes on WhatsApp adding,
I don’t want to be a slave.
Several former workers reported that STV did not even provide water bottles to its grape pickers, despite oppressive heat. Yet, the firm is legally obliged to do so. This is yet another example that shows that the much trumpeted idée fixe of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a mere hallucination that exists mostly in the minds of crypto-academics employed by business schools.
Camouflaged by the ideology of CSR, workers report on catastrophic conditions. A worker had been cheated out of a lot of money by STV. In the end, receiving less than €1,000 ($1,100) of the promised €2,000 ($2,200). Another worker said, every morning we got up at 4am, left around 5am and arrived at the vineyards at 7am.
There would hardly have been any rest periods. Workers were forced to take breaks while moving from one vineyard to another – usually on foot. Working days lasted until 5.30pm or 6pm and often, the workers arrive back home at 9pm. A case in 2022 revealed that two canisters with twenty litres of water had to be shared by forty workers. All this makes a mockery of what became known as: corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Meanwhile, things are very different for those living in corporate luxury while using slave-like labour. These are the bosses with MADD: moral attention deficit disorder who whitewash their conscious using, for example, corporate social responsibility.
Among these MADD-bosses are the managers of, for example, champagne firms like Taittinger and Bollinger– two well-known champagne brands. Next to Taittinger and Bollinger, there are also big companies like Mumm and Vranken.
Finally, there is the world market leader: Moët & Chandon– owned by luxury company LVMH with $187bn-dollar man Bernard Arnault at the helm. These companies have been using labour hire company for many years. And slave labour user LVMH has such a lovely CSR website!
Taittinger – self-appointed soul of a champagne house – for example, said, we have been working with this service provider for about twenty years without any problems. On annual workplace inspections, Taittinger says, no violations have been reported to us so far. Of course not, that is why champagne corporations use labour hire companies so that they can claim, we know nothing.
Sadly for “the we know nothing” champagne corporations, already in September 2021, a so-called service provider was arrested by Europol. Together with accomplices, he had fraudulently underpaid workers since 2017 – mainly for grape harvesting for champagne.
Its corporate scam had affected about 350 to 500 Bulgarians annually. This criminal French-Bulgarian mafia-style network had cheated the French state out of several million euros while also engaging in criminal money laundering – a little side operation. These investigations are on-going.
Meanwhile, a man and woman couple received three years in prison and a professional ban on human trafficking. They, too, had targeted asylum seekers. At the same time, several large champagne manufacturers benefited from theirsub-contracting businesses.
But – surprise, surprise – leading champagne companies did not find themselves in the dock. Even better, an employee of Veuve Clicquot was acquitted. The Code of Capital works well for firms like Veuve Clicquot, other French champagne corporations, and capitalism in general. It works less well for those at the receiving end: the slave-like workers picking grapes for luxury champagne corporations.
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