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The thorn in the rosebush

A recent conference by the Kenya Human Rights Commission highlights the plight of workers in Kenya's cut flower industry, while industry, government, and top-level union officials say that such worker abuses are few and far between.
Cathy Majtenyi

It was not long after Anita Gacheri began to work at a flower farm in Ruiru, near Nairobi, when her eyes started to itch and burn. She noticed that her eyes became particularly painful and teary after her colleagues sprayed chemicals on the flowers in the greenhouse where she worked.

Time passed, and the itching and burning gave way to blurring and, eventually, almost total blindness.

When she became blind the first time, Gacheri's company sent her for medical attention. In a medical report dated July 28, 2000, her doctor said: "We believe she is reacting to the chemicals she is exposed to in the course of her duties. She will require either a change in the department she's working in or goggles to protect her eyes. This is because the allergy is a recurring problem. Please assist her."

"When I took the document [to management], they just ignored it," she said. So Gacheri continued on with her duties for one week, after which she lost her vision again. The company gave her a termination notice on August 16, 2000. At the time of her firing, Gacheri was earning US$32 (Ksh2,460) a month basic pay, and was given US$44 (Ksh3,345) as severance, including her pay for that month.

"I'm experiencing terrible problems," explains Gacheri. "Sometimes I can stay even without food, because I have no money. I can't work." She is four months behind on the rent.

Gacheri's situation reflects what the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) says is common amongst workers in Kenya's booming flower industry: she was not provided with goggles and other equipment to protect her against hazardous chemicals; she was dismissed immediately for being sick; and she was paid a "starvation wage." And, her working life is all but over at the tender age of 24.

Gacheri and other workers shared their stories at a February 11-13 "Beauty to the flowers and dignity to our workers" conference held by the Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi. At the conference, workers, shop stewards, human rights officials, and others hammered out a final declaration of demands for changes in the area of workers' rights in the cut flower industry.

Kenya is Africa's leading exporter of cut flowers and other floricultural products, supplying approximately 25 percent of all flowers imported into the European Union, according to statistics by the industry's association, the Kenya Flower Council (KFC). Within 48 hours of being harvested, flowers are shipped from Kenya to European markets, primarily in Holland, Germany, and England. It is a US$110 million-a-year business, with exports exceeding 38,000 metric tons last year.

Since 1995, the flower industry has expanded by more than 35 percent, according to the KFC. There are now approximately 70 flower growers primarily in Naivasha, Thika, Limuru, and other areas. Of these, 28 are members of the KFC. The KFC estimates that up to 500,000 people - consisting of 50,000 flower farm workers and their dependents - gain their livelihoods from the flower industry.

As far as the KFC is concerned, situations such as what happened to Gacheri are rare. KFC chairman Rod Evans explains that since its inception in 1996, the industry group has offered its members a wide range of regular and frequent training programmes, especially on how to handle chemicals safely.

Members adhere to the KFC's Code of Practice, which outlines strict procedures for farm management, crop protection, the safe storage and use of pesticides, the protection of workers, general workers' welfare, and environmental protection, he said.

"New members coming into the Kenya Flower Council have seen huge improvements from [the time] they joined," says Evans. "The council and the Code of Practice are having an effect."

But the human rights organization begs to differ. According to a report the KHRC released last June, the human rights body found that in the flower farms it surveyed in Naivasha, workers face a number of labour violations. These include: "starvation wages" that are as low as Ksh70 a day; arbitrary dismissal for such things as leaving the greenhouse when it becomes unbearably hot; the use of casual workers who do not receive health, maternity, or any of the other benefits that their permanent counterparts receive; sexual harassment of women workers; and inability to form or join unions.

In addition, many workers are not being provided with the proper safety equipment, according to KHRC's report. After being exposed to chemicals at work, many of the workers reported ailments such as: infertility; lung damage; skin reactions; fainting; stomach problems; miscarriages; and reduced vision.

And in a statement it released at the conference, the KHRC said that "most" of the industry's 50,000 employees "are working under deplorable conditions."

It said that more than 90 percent of the workers in the flower industry are non-unionised, most farms do not conduct the prescribed training in occupational health or ensure that health and safety committees are in place, more than 80 percent of flower workers are employed as casuals or seasonal workers without job security and benefits, and housing conditions are severely crowded.

The company that fired Anita Gacheri was also a KFC member.

Evans said that the company at which Gacheri worked was not responsible for her eye condition. "My understanding of the case was that, before she started, she had had serious conjunctivitis that had been going on untreated for a long time," he said. Countered Gacheri: "Before I went to that company, I had no problem. I've never had any problem concerning my eyes. They took me to their company's doctor, I was tested, and they saw that I had no problem."

Gacheri's situation was an "isolated case" that should not make one generalize about the industry as a whole, said Franklin Muchiri, deputy director of the Ministry of Labour's Directorate of Occupational Health and Safety Services.

He said flower farms that don't sell to middlemen, which is the majority of farms, comply with high employment standards because of market forces. "My major concerns are those others who are subcontracted who may not be obliged to meet certain standards." Muchiri said his section carries out "a lot of inspections" of those farms, although he didn't have the exact number available at hand.

"We give them improvement notices," he said. "But ours is not to policeā€¦ We don't have the capacity to be policing on a daily basis."

"Maybe we could have a problem with enforcement, especially the punitive part of it," said Abisai Ambenge, labour commissioner at the Ministry of Labour. Noting that Kenya's labour legislation is based on international standards, he said that enforcement of the legislation is a problem because penalties are low and enforcement officers often do not have transport or even access to telephones.

"For those cases which have come to our offices, we have taken firm, appropriate action," he said. "If any worker in the flower industry feels that he is being victimized by the employer, or the employer feel he is being victimized by the workers or a union, we are prepared to listen to that and will take appropriate action."

The Plantation and Agricultural Workers' Union - and the wider body, the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) - are mandated to represent the interests of workers such as Gacheri. However, during the human rights conference, workers and shop stewards agreed that they should form a parallel organization to COTU, saying that the union is "dead" and no longer represents their interests.

Both unions are particularly weak in fighting for the rights of casual workers and educating all flower workers on their rights, said Peter Otieno, shop steward for the Naivasha branch of the Plantation and Agricultural Workers' Union, who works at Salima Farm in Naivasha. "As an employee, one expects to benefit from his union rather than non-government organisations," said Otieno. "They [flower workers] are being ignored."

Francis Atwoli, secretary general of both COTU and the Plantation and Agricultural Workers' Union, said COTU is now working with the Ministry of Labour to improve the situation of casual workers across the board. The union is doing this through submissions to the Task Force Reviewing Labour Laws, which is expected to release its report by the end of June.

Also, on January 30, COTU signed a collective bargaining agreement in which flower workers' wages will increase by 16 percent, said Atwoli. He said wages for flower workers range from Ksh4,060 to Ksh11,600 per month, well above Kenya's minimum wage.

And, COTU acts on any complaints it receives, says Atwoli. "Where there have been problems, we have gone there directly," he said, explaining that COTU was part of a ministry-led inspection of Naivasha flower farms last February. "We have shop stewards. Where they have written to us, we have written to the Ministry of Labour to take action, and action has been taken and the situation has been rectified."

Cases of worker exploitation on flower farms are due to World Bank liberalization policies in which foreign companies can invest and move out of the country at any time, said Atwoli. "They didn't want their farms or multinationals to address issues related to workers. They came in with a view of exploiting."

Atwoli estimated that 30 percent of the flower industry workforce is not provided with the proper protective equipment and other rights, mostly on smaller or "jua kali" farms.

Prof. A. Mwanthi, associate professor of community health at the University of Nairobi's Department of Health Sciences, College of Health Sciences, reported that more than 150 types of pesticides - including organochlorines and organoposphates - were imported into Kenya last year.

"By and large, exposure to agrochemicals remain the major occupational health hazards in this industry," Mwanthi told the conference.

In its statement, the KHRC said that it has been holding discussions with KFC, the Association of Agricultural Employers, and the Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya on workers' rights. "Our impression so far, however, is that minimal improvements have been effected based on the issued raised in these discussions," said the KHRC's statement.

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