Modern slavery is rife in France’s champagne industry, where Sri Lankan and Afghan workers say they have been exploited
Written by Robert Schmidt, Stephanie Wenger, Isaac Anis, and Jeevan Raveendran
November. November 15, 2023 (Paris, France) — In France, home to the Champagne region famous for growing grapes used in fine sparkling wines often used in celebrations, allegations of modern slavery and human trafficking of workers have prompted two investigations by prosecutors.
In 2022, the value of Champagne bottle shipments exceeded six billion euros for the first time, with a total of 326 million bottles exported worldwide. About two-thirds of the grapes harvested in the Champagne wine region are used by major Champagne producers including famous brands such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot as well as Nicolas Feuillatte, Mumm and Laurent Perrier.
The industry’s success is largely due to the large foreign workforce, which makes up the majority of the more than 100,000 seasonal workers in the vineyards. According to the Champagne Industry Federation, the production of workers from abroad exceeded that of French workers for the first time in 2017. Since then, this rate has increased, with some union representatives and other experts estimating that about two-thirds of production today is produced by foreign labor. Many of them are appointed through providers. These companies act as middlemen and provide an “off-the-shelf” workforce that wine producers say is difficult to find. There are hundreds of service providers in Champagne – some have been established for years and operate year-round in the vineyards, while others are established only a few months before harvest, attracted by the prospect of good business.
In June 2022, a court in Reims convicted two entrepreneurs of Sri Lankan origin, Chandrika Suntharalingam and her husband, Pathamaraja, of “human trafficking” and sentenced them to three years in prison. One year was suspended, and the couple were fitted with electronic bracelets.
The Sontharalingam family, both from Jaffna, arrived in France in the 2000s and set up an association called Rajviti in the town of Montpret, providing services to the champagne industry. The French human rights NGO, Comité Pour L’Escravage Moderne, identified and assisted about 200 victims, most of them from Afghanistan. “People have been exploited in an inhumane way,” said Benjamin Chauveau, a French lawyer who supported 15 of them.
“The work was very difficult,” said Warsiwal, an Afghan-born whistleblower who worked for Sontharalingams. “We would work until 11 or 11:30 at night, and wake up around 5 or 6 in the morning. Thirty-six people would sleep in one room. There was only one toilet… Another thing that was very difficult was food. We didn’t get enough Of food.”
Sumanraj Sundran, a laborer from Jaffna who worked as a mechanic in France before being recruited by the Sontharalingam family, described them as “big scammers” and said everything was fine at first and then they cheat people, adding that the couple still owes him a large sum. from money. He accused them of deducting money from workers’ salaries and said many people were cheated by the couple.
He added that the Suntharalingams would charge unfair prices for the housing they provided, treat workers “like slaves”, ask them to work overtime beyond 35 hours a week, but then fail to pay their wages. If they ask for their salaries, the workers are then threatened, Sumanraj alleged. They also recruited Sri Lankans and Afghans, said Sumanraj, who now lives near Paris. Many of them were recruited directly from refugee shelters and sent to wine growers in Champagne, public investigators from the French police and French labor inspectors discovered. According to their findings, the workers were housed in overcrowded and dilapidated houses with insufficient toilets or bathrooms. The workers also lacked water and food. Some said they were not paid at all, while others were paid in cash amounts less than the legally binding minimum wage.
The Suntharalingams declined to comment when contacted and said they no longer employ anyone to work in the champagne industry.
Our investigation found that the Suntharalingams circumvented the professional ban imposed by the judge. Even this year, Chandrika Suntharalingam had been actively offering her services to the champagne industry via Facebook, just a few months ago.
When the court first sentenced Chandrika in May 2021, she and her former business partner had set up a company providing services to wine producers based in Reims. Chandrika, who holds a French passport, was listed as a beneficiary of the company, which was also listed along with her professional phone number. In February 2022, the company’s headquarters were also moved to a private apartment occupied by her sister. In May 2023, Chandrika promoted the company’s new services through a short video shared on Facebook, saying: “Manual weeding, lifting, trellising: our team is ready to do all kinds of work. All sectors. Just give us a call.” As of November 10, the company was still active.
Over the past few years, numerous news stories have been published detailing allegations of grape pickers being subjected to modern slavery in the Champagne industry. In September, five harvest workers died in circumstances that remain under investigation. In the same month, public authorities closed at least four worker accommodations, including illegal camping sites. It was found that some workers suffer from malnutrition, work without papers or employment contracts, and live in unsanitary conditions.
The Champagne Commission, a trade association representing the common interests of Champagne factories and growers, announced in a written statement that “the entire profession is deeply affected and expresses its condolences to the families of (the deceased workers).” “Some harvest workers have been detained in intolerable conditions. We condemn this unspeakable behavior in the strongest possible terms.”
The statement added, “The Federation of Industry agreed with the authorities to… take all necessary measures to ensure that such deviations are not repeated.” This also includes the fact that we will participate in legal proceedings alongside the affected parties. The first concrete proposals were presented in mid-October and identified the need for more accommodation, better organization of work and, above all, safer and stricter rules to be applied to providers in the future.
Despite prosecution by authorities, Champagne winemakers are often undeterred in criminal activity. In 2012, the first winemaker was sentenced after employing hundreds of Polish citizens through a fake company. In 2019, after four years of investigations, a second ruling was issued against a service provider that housed hundreds of Polish citizens in inhumane conditions. In September 2021, one of the service providers was arrested on charges of defrauding the French state of “several million euros” through a Franco-Bulgarian network that has employed between 350 and 500 Bulgarians every year since 2017, according to private investigators from the city of Lille. Eight people were charged with illegal activities and organized money laundering.
Note: This story is part of the “Champagne Leaks” investigative journalism project supported by Journalismfund.eu. The team can be contacted via email: email@example.com
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