The work in vineyards and wineries, initially, was characterized by informality.
In the beginning, access to work went along with the right to a place to live. That is, the contract involved work, land, and housing. Each person agreed with the employer on the concessions included in the work, if in addition to the salary he received a fraction of land for cultivation, if this included access to irrigation water, and the way in which the use of these should be compensated. Payments could be in either labor time or products. The members of the resident families could also be summoned to provide services, especially during the harvest season, receiving a monetary remuneration in compensation.
The complexity of this network of exchanges, where monetary and non-monetary payments circulated, operated in favor of minimizing wages, whose amounts were well below what was established as minimum wage at the time. Therefore, one of the main motives behind the trade union organization of wine workers in the area, and of the demands and complaints that they carried out between the 1960s and 1970s, was the demand for full wages in labor relations and compliance with labor rights.
At that time, the union complaints and demands made public the violation of labor rights and along with it questioned the working and living conditions on those farms, placing the residential system at the center of their criticism.
Article 23 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that every human being has the right to work, to choose his or her job, to work in good conditions and to earn a living wage.
Law of exploitation of vineyards and fruit trees
Until the 1980s, there were many permanent workers, both in vineyards and wineries, with precarious working conditions, and temporary workers were also hired for the harvest season.
In 1984, Law 23,154 was passed, in which “vineyard contractors” appeared. These contractors were responsible for the care of the vineyard from the beginning of the grape growth cycle until the end of the harvest season. As part of the deal, they were provided a house on the property to live with their family. This situation created a strong link between the work of the contractor and life at home. As such, members of his family often helped with certain tasks across the vineyard, such as pruning. Regarding monetary compensation, the contractor received a fixed salary for 10 months, the amount of which varied according to the size of the vineyard. During the harvest season, they earned additional income, ranging from 15% to 18% of the profit the owner made from selling the harvested grapes to wineries.
The economic crisis of the late 1980s forced the industry to transform its farming practices. A new emphasis was placed on quality, mainly in response to a growing foreign demand for wine, and this led to product differentiation. In addition, there were other factors that contributed to the reconfiguration of the industry, such as the emergence of new international markets, changes in national wine consumption, and the entry of foreign investors and large national financial groups. Of course, we must not ignore the technological innovations that generated a change in the skills required from human resources.
Vine workers and technology
Starting in the 1990s, innovations not only consisted of the incorporation of new varieties, especially fine ones, but also the use of new driving systems. The gradual and constant growth of the trellises influences the work quantitatively and qualitatively. In quantitative terms, the occupation could be lower in structures with high trellises than in vineyards, since the former is prepared for mechanical harvesting, which considerably reduces transitory work; qualitatively because pruning requires skilled workers.
The high trellises, used for fine varieties, require the greatest number of specialized workers. In general, workers who perform the pruning are transitory and specialized in this type of task. “Quality grape production systems are characterized by a significant requirement for highly specialized permanent and seasonal personnel and lead to an even more significant decrease in unskilled seasonal labor used in harvesting in the most modern driving systems.” On the other hand, mechanical harvesters offer more advantages than restrictions. However, its use reduces the oenological quality and is only possible in plantations whose training system relies on the trellises.
A mechanical harvester represents a reduction in costs of between 20% and 35%. In addition, the machine works 24 hours a day, reducing the time required for the harvest and eliminating administrative expenses involved in formalizing and onboarding employees as well as any chances of union conflict. The machine only requires one operator to run it, which significantly reduces the required workforce. These impacts are observed more in the common grape than in the table grape, the mechanization of which is practically impossible.
Another of the technological innovations refers to drip irrigation which replaces surface or traditional furrow irrigation and considerably reduces the number of workers needed. In pressurized irrigation, a single irrigation operator can manage between 80 and 100 hectares.
In this way, the industry currently operates with a broader professional support, the participation of agronomists is more important when compared to previous decades. Before, most of the farms that registered an adequate agronomic control of the vineyards employed a contractor with many years of. All these transformations have occurred to a greater extent in larger or smaller agents that use modern and cutting-edge technology. In this way, these changes are more visible in the table grape chain than in the common grape chain, whose presence of traditional producers is more numerous.
As far as the transformation link is concerned, the introduction of technological innovations and new forms of management required new worker qualifications.
In general, the time of greatest demand is concentrated in milling, which is why it is a transitory job for relatively young people (not more than 40 years old). It has a clearly male demand with the most frequent skills being racking, devatting, pumping over, grinding, pressing, clarifying and filtering, handling pumps, and winemaking itself.
In the case of permanent jobs, technology forces employers to increase the demand for qualified technicians, since most imported machinery and equipment require local adaptations. The permanent adaptation of the equipment varies according to the size of the company, in the smallest ones the oldest employees oversee making domestic corrections, so they acquire skills with experience. On the other hand, the largest ones outsource the service, and some medium-sized ones employ engineers or specialists.
In this framework, the search for greater competitiveness brought with it the need for workers with new skills. These involve higher levels of qualification and specialization, versatility and other intellectual skills. Before, an oenologist was in charge of supervising all of the areas while today it is very common for them to be specialized by sector (fractionation and elaboration).
They normally work as a team, and new figures have emerged such as external advisors and auditors that did not exist before. Table grapes also require a highly specialized operator, fundamentally in the packing and harvesting stage, since care in both tasks ensures the quality of the product. The packaging also requires a particular skill, and it is carried out mainly by female labor, as well as the fractionation and selection in the production of raisins.
Source of work and wealth
As wine is a value-added product, it generates direct and indirect employment. 100 hectares of vines employ, on average, 72 people, while soy needs only 2.
Thus, wine directly employs some 150,000 people and directly or partially supports some 400,000. Now, measured as a generator of wealth, wine is the export agri-food complex that generates the most added value: one hectare cultivated with grapes generates average exports worth a total of USD 4,800.
I’m an IT professional, magician and a wine lover. I have always liked to write and since 2010 I write the Argentinian wine blog El Vino del Mes. I trained at C.A.V.E. (Argentine Center of Wines and Spirits) and I do “El Vino del Mes”: a blind wine tasting meeting in which we choose the wine of the month. On the blog, I do the design, edition, writing and creation of content. I recently create “Magia y Vino”, where I pair illusions with a glass of wine. I am a founding member of “Blogueros del Vino” and “AWB” (Argentina Wine Bloggers).