(MENAFN- Colombo Gazette) EXCLUSIVE
By Robert Schmidt, Stéphanie Wenger, Ishaq Anis and Jeevan Ravindran
Nov. 15, 2023 (Paris, France) - In France, home to the Champagne region famous for growing the grapes used in the luxury sparkling wine often used in celebrations, allegations of modern slavery and human trafficking of workers have led to the launch of two investigations by prosecutors.
In 2022, the value of shipments of champagne bottles exceeded six billion euro for the first time, with a total of 326 million bottles exported worldwide. About two-thirds of the grapes harveste in the Champagne wine region are used by the big Champagne producers including famous brands such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot as well as Nicolas Feuillatte, Mumm and Laurent Perrier.
The success of the industry is due in large part to a massive foreign workforce, who comprise the majority of the more than 100,000 seasonal workers in the vineyards. According to the Champagne Industry Federatio , the output of workers from abroad exceeded the output of French workers for the first time in 2017. Since then it has increased, with some union representatives and other experts estimating that around two-thirds of the output today is produced by foreign workers. Many of them are hired through service providers. These companies work as middle men and provide a“ready to use” workforce that wine producers say is difficult to find. Hundreds of providers exist in Champagne - some of them have been established for years and work year-round in the vineyards, while others are created just a few months before the harvest season, attracted by the prospect of good business.
In June 2022, two entrepreneurs of Sri Lankan origin, Chandrika Suntharalingam, and her husband Pathmaraja, were found guilty by a court in Reims of the“trafficking of human beings” and sentenced to three years in prison. One of the years was suspended, and the couple were fitted with electronic bracelets.
The Suntharalingams, both from Jaffna, arrived in France in the 2000s and set up an association called Rajviti in the town of Montbré, providing services to the champagne industry. The French human rights NGO, Comité Pour L'Esclavage Moderne, identified and assisted around 200 victims, mainly from Afghanistan. Benjamin Chauveaux, a French lawyer who supported 15 of them, said“people were exploited in an inhumane way.”
“The work was very difficult,” said Warziwal, an Afghan-born whistle-blower who worked for the Suntharalingams.“We worked until 11 or 11:30 at night, and we would wake up around 5 or 6 in the morning. 36 people would sleep in one room. There was only one toilet... Another thing which was very difficult was the food. We didn't get enough food.”
Sumanraj Sandran, a worker from Jaffna who was working as a mechanic in France before being recruited by the Suntharalingams, described them as“big frauds” and said it was“all fine at the beginning and then they cheat people,” adding that the couple still owed him a large sum of 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 lodgings they provided, treated workers“like slaves,” and would ask them to work overtime beyond their standard 35 hours per week but would then fail to pay them. If they asked for their salary, workers were then threatened, Sumanraj alleged. Sumanraj, who now lives near Paris, said they also had recruited Sri Lankans and Afghans. Several had been directly hired from refugee shelters and sent to wine growers in Champagne, public investigators from French police and French labour inspectors found. According to their findings, the workers were accommodated in overpopulated, run-down houses with not enough toilets or showers. Workers also lacked water and food. Some of them said they had not been paid at all, while others were remunerated in cash amounts below the legally binding minimum salary.
The Suntharalingams declined to comment when approached and said they were no longer recruiting anyone for work in the champagne industry.
Our investigation found that the Suntharalingams circumvented the professional ban imposed by the judge. Even this year, Chandrika Suntharalingam actively offered her services for the champagne industry via Facebook, as recently as a few months ago.
When Chandrika was first sentenced by the court in May 2021, she and her former business partner created, a service provider for wine producers based in Reims. Chandrika, who holds a French passport, was included as a beneficiary of the company, which was also listed with her professional phone number. In February 2022, the company's base was also moved to a private apartment occupied by her sister. As recently as May 2023, Chandrika has been promoting the new company's services with a short video clip shared to Facebook, saying:“Hand 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 last few years, several 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 under circumstances that are still being investigated. In the same month, at least four accommodations for workers, including illegal campsites, were closed down by public authorities. Some workers were found to be malnourished, working without papers or employment contracts, and housed in unsanitary conditions.
“The entire profession is deeply affected and expresses its condolences to the families (of the deceased workers),” the Comité Champagne, the trade association representing the common interests of champagne houses and growers, declared in a written statement.“Some harvest workers were taken in under intolerable conditions. We condemn this unspeakable behaviour in the strongest possible terms.”
The statement further said the“industry association has agreed with the authorities to... take all necessary measures to ensure that such derailments are not repeated. This also includes the fact that we will be involved in legal proceedings on the side of the injured parties.” The first concrete proposals were presented in mid-October and outlined the need for more accommodation, better organisation of work, and above all, safer and stricter rules to be applied to service providers in future.
Despite prosecution from the authorities, champagne winemakers are often undeterred in criminal activity. In 2012, the first winemaker was sentenced after employing hundreds of Polish nationals through a shell company. In 2019, after four years of investigations, there was a second verdict against a service provider who had housed hundreds of Polish nationals in inhumane conditions. In September 2021, a service provider was arrested for defrauding the French state of“several millions of euros” through a Franco-Bulgarian network that employed 350 to 500 Bulgarians every year since 2017, according to special investigators from Lille. Eight people were charged with illegal activities and organised money laundering.
Note: This story is part of the investigative journalism project“Champagne Leaks” which has been backed by journalismfund. The team can be reached out by mail:
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