On-site housing for workers and their children is not fit for to live in, and lacks of access to toilets or drinking water, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The workers make millions for South Africa's economy, through wines sold in British supermarkets, but are among the lowest wage earners in the country, the group's report says.
"The wealth and wellbeing these workers produce should not be rooted in human misery,” said HRW’s Daniel Bekele. “The government and the industries and farmers themselves need to do a lot more to protect people who live and work on farms."
The UK and Germany are the biggest importers of South African wine and the UK is also one of the biggest importers or the country’s Western Cape fruit.
The 96-page report, Ripe with Abuse: Human Rights Conditions in South Africa's Fruit and Wine Industries, says: "Despite their critical role in the success of the country's valuable fruit, wine, and tourism industries, farm workers benefit very little, in large part because they are subject to exploitative conditions and human rights abuses without sufficient protection of their rights."
One farmworker showed Human Rights Watch researchers a former pig stall without electricity, water, or protection from the elements where he has lived with his wife and children for 10 years.
“It makes me very unhappy,” his wife said, “because I can’t guarantee [the] safety of [my] children and can’t provide for [my] children.”
Living on the farm where they work is part of many South African farm workers job contracts and their family and children join them. Yet people interviewed said evictions were common, particularly when workers got too sick or old to work.
The South African wine industry has accused the report of bias. "The report makes only the scantiest reference to the many farm owners who comply with all legislation and go way beyond it,” said Su Birch, chief executive of Wines of South Africa. “For every poor house on a farm, I can show you loads of good ones and some exceptional ones,” she told the Guardian newspaper.
Human Rights Watch says the answer is not to boycott South African products, because that could be disastrous for farmworkers. “But we are asking retailers to press their suppliers to ensure that there are decent conditions on the farms that produce the products they buy and sell to their customers,” Bekele said.