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Cut flower industry accused of human right abuse

A coalition of non-governmental organisations led by the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) has announced plans to conduct national and international campaigns that would highlight what it says are exploitive labour conditions of workers in Kenya's cut flower industry.
Cathy Majtenyi

At a three-day conference that ended May 17 in Nairobi, representatives of non-government organisations from the United Kingdom, Italy, Holland, Germany, and others met with Kenyan labour unions, non-government organisations, and others to hammer out campaigns that would be carried out in Kenya and overseas.

"The campaign shall be conducted at various levels and shall vary from boycott of flowers and products from certain investors to awareness campaigns," said the KHRC's statement, read at a press conference at the close of the meeting.

But the statement and individual participants were reluctant to provide details of when and how these campaigns will be conducted, saying that they were still in the process of planning the events.

However, Steve Ouma, KHRC's programme officer for advocacy, told The East African that activities in Kenya would include: a national boycott of up to 20 percent or more of Kenya's flower companies that are deemed the worst offenders of workers' rights; public rallies to increase the public's awareness of the situation in the flower farms; a presentation by the KHRC to the Parliamentary Committee on Labour, Health, and Safety; and cooperation with the Kenya Medical Association (KMA) to examine workers who have developed health problems as a result of being exposed to dangerous chemicals and working conditions on the job.

"For sure, there will be restrictive action on the market," to take place as early as the end of June, Ouma told The East African.

This latest meeting follows a conference that was held in Nairobi in February during which workers, representatives of unions, and others described the working conditions of labourers on Kenya's flower farms.

Participants and research conducted by the KHRC revealed that workers are paid as little as Sh70 a day for an eight to 12-hour workday, are housed in crowded facilities, can be dismissed at will, and often handle dangerous chemicals without the proper protective equipment.

Women workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, Kathini Caines, general secretary of the Kenya Women Workers Organisation (KWWO), told The East African. She said that 800 members of her union, out of a total of 12,000, are labourers on flower farms.

They report cases of sexual harassment, no maternity leave, overcrowded housing, low pay, and other conditions, said Caines.

Caines said that her union would help to organise a national boycott of flowers from selected farms within the next several months. "We're still giving the employers a chance for dialogue," she said. She said her union would also give workshops to flower farm workers. "That way, it will help them [the workers] to demand their rights from their employers."

Women Working Worldwide (WWW), a non-government organisation based in the United Kingdom, is one of KWWO's partners overseas. Director Angela Hale said that WWW has had 20 years of experience advocating for the rights of women in the garment and other industries.

"The level of exploitation on the [Kenyan] flower farms is so extreme," she told The East African. "The issues on the flower farms are even worse" than other industries that WWW has dealt with in the past, she said.

She estimated that approximately 40 percent of flowers exported from Kenya end up in the UK, mostly sold in supermarkets. She said her group plans to "take action in Europe," although not through a boycott.

The cut flower industry is one of Kenya's major export earners, generating billions of shillings per year. According to the Kenya Flower Council, Kenya is the largest supplier of cut flowers to European Union markets, accounting for 25 percent of all flower exports into the EU. Flower production is done on 2,000 hectares - 20 sq. km. - of land, mostly in the Naivasha area in the Rift Valley Province.

The horticultural industry as a whole - of which the flower farms are a part - is the second largest foreign exchange earner in Kenya, above coffee and tourism, said the KFC. The horticultural industry employs 70,000 people.

The KFC, formed in 1996 and which now represents 70 percent of Kenya's flower growers, has taken great pains to ensure that its members follow the organisation's Code of Practice, KFC chairman Rod Evans told conference delegates. The KFC has worked with the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers' Union, the KHRC, Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) and others to come up with high standards, he said.

"On joining the Kenya Flower Council, the member accepts that he understands and is prepared to invest in the environmental and social criteria required for membership," said Evans. He explained that members are audited regularly and that KFC offers its members health and safety, environmental, and other types of training.

"Subsequent failure to comply with the Code of Practice will result in suspension of the member with the withdrawal of his/her accreditation and KFC branding," he said, adding that many members also comply with international codes of conduct and provide employees and local communities with schooling, water projects, AIDS awareness, and other health and social programmes.

Evans said, "no scientific data or evidence has yet been produced" with respect to workers and others being poisoned by pesticides used on the farms. "Unbalanced and emotive reports in the news media do us nothing but harm," he said.

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