The harvest outlook in Champagne has been overshadowed by a series of distressing incidents. Five individuals have lost their lives; four succumbed to heart complications arising from the extraordinary heat, and a fifth was discovered deceased in a tent.
The French daily l’Humanité speaks about "modern slavery". The local newspaper in Reims, l’Union, informs about the closure of four collective accommodations due to inhumane conditions. In two instances, the prosecutor’s office has initiated investigations for human trafficking.
An inspection by the labor inspectorate has uncovered the exploitation and appalling housing conditions of undocumented grape-pickers in the Marne region of France. The Châlons-en-Champagne public prosecutor's office has opened a preliminary investigation into human trafficking.
In one case, it concerned 18 harvest helpers from Bulgaria. In another, thoroughly documented by l’Humanité, a group of around 60 migrant workers of West African origin, many undocumented, were accommodated under inhumane conditions. They were forced to work, and the promised wage of €80 per day has yet to be paid.
The case came to light due to complaints from a neighbor, leading to the closure of the worker’s accommodation, where multiple violations against safety and sanitary regulations were observed. Electrical wires were exposed, the accommodation had no solid flooring and exposed brickwork.
When the accommodation was closed, reasons were posted on the door, mentioning premises being “outdated, dilapidated, unhygienic, not cleaned, and not disinfected,” with “toilets, sanitary facilities, and common rooms in a disgusting condition” and “accumulation of feces in sanitary facilities.”
All cases are connected to subcontractors who recruit labor and rent them it to producers. Sometimes, these business relations are so intricate that no connection can be established between the actual subcontractor and the client where the work is being done.
Champagne Association demands action
David Chatillon and Maxime Toubart, the chairs of the Comité de Champagne (CIVC), demand stricter rules and frameworks for these companies in an interview with l’Union, in light of the shocking events. Many vintners and Champagne houses still hire their workers directly, but legislation has increasingly complicated this, leading to a rise in such intermediary companies.
This development needs to be addressed with stricter rules. The CIVC plans to convene the relevant authorities in the coming weeks to tighten frameworks and safety precautions.
While many other regions in France are increasingly relying on machine harvesting, it is not allowed in Champagne according to its specifications. David Chatillon mentioned that the use of machines had been considered, but they are not suitable for harvesting red grapes for Blanc de Noirs. However, around 70% of the vineyard area in Champagne is planted with red varieties. Hence, the focus must initially be on regulating the frameworks for hand-harvesting.