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Champagne producers are celebrating record sales and turnover. During the harvest, however, harvest workers are repeatedly exploited and cheated out of their wages. The arte documentary "Exploited for Champagne" sheds light on the dark side of the industry - and shows positive counter-examples.

Champagne is synonymous with maximum enjoyment at parties, celebrations and fine dining. The major houses, often owned by luxury goods groups, constantly provide new glamorous images for this image and collaborate with world stars. However, there were also sobering scenes during the grape harvest in 2023: Five harvest workers died in the unusual heat. Tent camps without sanitary facilities were set up around Epernay, where workers had to sleep - even though they had been promised good accommodation. Some temporary labour companies are also strongly suspected of exploiting foreign workers and cheating them out of their wages.

Investigative journalists Robert Schmidt, Stéphanie Wenger and Ishaq Anis researched the dark side of the champagne industry for the Arte reportage series "Re:", supported by the European research NGO Journalismfund. They were able to interview some of those affected, but only a few of them wanted to break the silence and tell their stories on camera. They are afraid of not being able to find work afterwards.

Who benefits from slave labour?

The industry association CIVC condemns such practices in the strongest terms. Nevertheless, they do exist, as trade unionist José Blanco and his colleagues repeatedly point out. He criticises the fact that too little is being done, even though a number of entrepreneurs have already been sentenced to prison for human trafficking and slave-like working conditions. He warns against "unscrupulous temporary employment agencies". Lawyer Benjamin Chauveaux has represented several victims in the largest human trafficking trial in Champagne to date. In the process, he gained an insight into a complex system of subcontractors, at the end of which the major champagne brands also benefit from slave labour. He criticises the fact that the role of the major producers has hardly been highlighted to this day: "It seems as if people are only ever interested in those who hold the whip in their hands, but never in those who give them the orders."

The impressive, well-researched documentary also shows the example of a family winery that treats its seasonal workers fairly and well. According to trade unionist Sabine Duménil, it is not clear how many harvest workers are really being exploited: "It could be individual cases. But even a single case in our vineyards is unacceptable."

Watch "Exploited for champagne" (31 minutes)

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