Champagne Takes Steps to Prevent Another Tragic Harvest

After five deaths during the 2023 harvest, the Champagne region has implemented a comprehensive action plan to better protect workers in the future.

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Simple health and safety measures such as taking sufficient breaks to drink are particularly important during increasingly hot reading times. (Photo: created with Adobe Firefly AI)
Simple health and safety measures such as taking sufficient breaks to drink are particularly important during increasingly hot reading times. (Photo: created with Adobe Firefly AI)

Five Deaths and Numerous Reports of Severe Labor Violations: This was the shocking outcome of last year's harvest in France's prestigious Champagne region. The incidents even attracted television attention, leading to an international investigative documentary that uncovered tent camps in forests and reported unpaid wages.

Isolated incidents? That is the claim from the Comité Champagne, but they also acknowledged their responsibility and announced a comprehensive action plan to prevent such incidents in the future. At a press conference on June 20 in Épernay, the Comité’s co-presidents, Maxime Toubart and David Chatillon, presented their action plan.

Comprehensive action plan

This plan was preceded by a series of meetings. An interprofessional working group was established as early as October 2023 to coordinate collaboration among all involved stakeholders. Since then, there have been over 100 meetings, resulting in the following outcomes:

  • Mandatory Guidelines: Various binding guides for employers now define rules, such as how seasonal workers should be housed and the health and safety standards that must be adhered to. Given that extreme heat was a major factor in the deaths of four workers last year, this component is particularly crucial.
  • Welcome Handbook: A handbook has been developed to be distributed to workers at the start of their employment, informing them of their rights and safety regulations.
  • Best-Practice Tool: In addition to the mandatory guidelines, a best-practice tool has been created to allow employers to self-assess and receive suggestions for practices that exceed standard requirements.
  • Partnership Agreement: The Comité Champagne, the Union des Maisons de Champagne (UMC, the association of major Champagne houses), and the winegrowers' union Syndicat Général des Vignerons have formed a partnership agreement with local fire and rescue services. This includes training specifically for foremen and generally for employers.
  • Community Involvement: Communities where harvesting takes place are to be more actively involved in monitoring and are encouraged to report any violations immediately.
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Enhanced monitoring

Effective monitoring and evaluation are critical challenges. To address this, the region plans to introduce new measures: the VitArgos platform will allow employers to register, self-evaluate, and monitor their subcontractors. The frequent multi-tier outsourcing of services to numerous subcontractors often leads to fraud and violations. To combat this, a new association will be established to unite these service providers, facilitating better communication and control.

Targeted recruitment

Each year, around 100,000 grape pickers, often from precarious situations or poorer EU countries, come to work in Champagne. To improve recruitment practices, new strategies will be implemented. The University of Reims will help attract students, and the Ministry of Labor is launching a pilot program to recruit job seekers for the Champagne harvest. The idea is that meeting the high demand for labor more effectively will make it harder for dubious companies to exploit vulnerable seasonal workers from abroad.'

Increased control during harvest

To ensure strict oversight during the harvest, a dedicated working group will meet daily and coordinate with local safety authorities. This group will be capable of responding to urgent warnings within hours. Additionally, a weather portal will be made available to all producers, providing alerts not only for extreme weather events like frost or hail but also for heatwaves, starting this year.

For more details, visit the online platform of the new action plan.

Fuel to the fire

The issue gained new momentum a few weeks ago. In May, José Blanco, General Secretary of the CGT trade union, criticized the UMC for requesting an exemption from labor regulations for the upcoming Champagne harvest from the relevant department. When questioned by the German wine trade magazine Weinwirtschaft, the UMC explained that this exemption request is a standard annual procedure due to the specific working conditions of the grape harvest.

"For the first time this year, the CGT has issued a dissenting opinion and expressed the desire for a broader reconsideration of the harvest's organization." Whether the unions find the recent considerations and subsequent measures sufficient remains to be seen. It is certainly hoped that a harvest season like 2023 will not be repeated. AW


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