Calls to change Champagne grape picker conditions after deaths in 2023

Five seasonal workers died in heatwave temperatures last year

A seasonal worker picking grapes in a French vineyard
“[Harvesting] is hard physical work. You have to be competitive and fair,” says Frédéric Gallois at Moët & Chandon (image for illustration only, does not show Moët & Chandon vineyards)

Industry professionals have called for changes to conditions for Champagne grape pickers in France this year, after five seasonal workers died in 2023.

Every year between 100,000 and 120,000 people handpick Champagne grapes across around 34,000 hectares of vines. 

Their employers should ensure their safety in all weathers (including heatwaves and heavy rain) and give them enough to eat and drink throughout the day, as well as accommodation, and transport to and from picking sites.

However, last year five workers died during an intense heatwave.

The Marne prefecture later ordered the closure of the accommodation blocks in which the workers had been staying, calling them “insalubrious” and “undignified”. 

The prosecutor opened two inquiries into the alleged mistreatment of human beings in a bid to investigate the circumstances of the deaths.

Industry representatives have publicly said that the profession was “shocked” by the deaths, and condemned the conditions the workers were living as “abusive”. They have called for higher standards.

David Chatillon, co-chairman of Comité Champagne, which represents 16,200 winegrowers told Le Figaro: “It is out of the question for unacceptable individual behaviour to threaten the safety of seasonal workers and the reputation of the entire industry.”

He made the statement at a press conference, while unveiling an action plan for change.

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‘A whole year to prepare for harvesting’

One vineyard director, Frédéric Gallois of Moët & Chandon, said that it takes the company a “whole year” to prepare for the two to three weeks of harvesting.

The renowned producers hire around 4,300 pickers per year on a seasonal basis, and recently built new accommodation for some workers, with rooms containing three to eight beds, and a large locker for each person. 

The block also has a large common room, and the company provides a variety of meals, physiotherapists, and evening entertainment.

It also has protocols for the workers in the event of very hot weather, and is prepared to change its working hours to avoid the hottest times of the day. Workers are paid on average €1,700 for 10 days’ work.

“[Harvesting] is hard physical work,” said Mr Gallois. “You have to be competitive and fair. We have the same rules for our pickers as we do for ourselves.”

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‘Employers need to take responsibility’

José Blanco, general secretary of the CGT Champagne trade union, said that Moët & Chandon is one company that became "aware very early that the poor reception of seasonal workers can have [a negative impact] on the image of Champagne. 

"Unfortunately, this is not the case for other houses and winegrowers.”

Mr Blanco has urged seasonal picker recruitment agencies - which now recruit around half of the total number of workers in Champagne - to form unions for their workers.

However, he said that employers and recruiters need to take responsibility for their seasonal workers, and establish a set of rules. Conditions would not truly change until this happens, he said.

Mr Blanco said that the profession could, for example, establish a code of conduct that could specify rules such as “no accommodation in tents”. He even suggested that if a vineyard does not comply, they should have their ‘appellation’ label revoked.

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Has ‘the industry has done its job’ already?

Mr Chatillon has said that Mr Blanco’s suggestions would go too far, and that the committee does not hold such powers. 

Yet, he did say that the committee is working with the gendarmes and labour authorities to carry out more checks, and implement daily monitoring of working conditions during harvest time.

One industry head, Marie-Pierre Charpentier, who is president of the Groupe des jeunes vignerons de la Champagne, said the industry already has guidelines for worker conditions and good practices, and that deaths and injuries are rare.

“The industry has done its job,” she said. “We were all stunned [by the deaths], but you can’t predict whether someone will have a heart attack because of the heat.”