Wake up and smell the roses

Campaigners are exposing the conditions that predominantly women workers suffer in Kenya to bring cheap cut flowers to western Europe, writes Siobhan McGuirk

April 15, 2008
6 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

For Kenyan flower farms, February and March are the most important months of the year. Responsible for 25 per cent of the European cut flower market, the period between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day marks a radical increase in demand. The additional workload is borne out by an already exploited, predominantly female labour force.

With exports increasing at 10-15 per cent per year, floriculture is Kenya’s fastest growing industry, currently employing 56,000 people. Naivasha, one of Kenya’s most prolific production zones, has featured in international coverage of post-election turmoil since violence spread there in late January, although commentary has tended towards potential high-season export revenue losses, rather than the region’s human crises.

The selective media coverage is perhaps unsurprising, as the untold story is of workers’ rights being steadily eroded for the cut-price demands of European retailers. Grass-roots organisations, however, are currently supporting women workers as they assert their labour rights in Naivasha’s farms and packing houses, many of which are Dutch or German owned. They are gradually exposing the human cost of Europe’s rapacious reliance on exploited Kenyan labour for the luxury of cheap flowers.

Exploitation behind the bouquet

The Kenya Women Workers Organisation (KEWWO), set up in 1990 to investigate the welfare of women workers in various industries, recognises that women are more susceptible to unjustifiable labour conditions than men. Working in the horticulture sector since 2002, KEWWO later joined Women Working Worldwide (WWW), a British-based NGO dedicated to networking internationally with women worker organisations, to represent their findings to the European side of the supply chain.

This partnership has uncovered numerous labour rights abuses in the flower export industry. Low and irregular wage payments and forced overtime are commonplace, affecting workers’ ability to provide childcare or access health and education services. Sexual harassment and exposure to harmful chemicals – resulting in skin irritation, breathing problems and miscarriages – are rife. Employment is usually contracted on temporary or casual bases and union activity strongly discouraged. The resultant job insecurity leaves workers unaware of their basic rights, or otherwise simply unable to demand them.

These conditions are a direct product of European markets’ fixation on the bottom line, as Kate Byron of WWW acknowledges: ‘The system is set up [so] that UK supermarkets manage to get really cheap goods out of the fact that people are employed on low wages and in a bad environment … the flower industry, as it is, is unsustainable and exploitative.’

KEWWO and WWW endeavour to trace supply chains between South and North, to identify the multiple actors involved in the journey, as each one is complicit in the exploitation of flower industry workers. It is a complex task: ‘[Flowers] come either from a direct link between farms and supermarkets or go to the Dutch auction houses to be bought by wholesalers, retailers and florists. Then it’s difficult to trace where they’ve come from. They’ve got certain types of labelling standards but you won’t necessarily know which country it’s come from, or which farm, so it’s harder to raise labour rights standards through that route,’ reveals Byron.

When purchasers in the North pressure prices down, larger farms start subcontracting to smaller ones, where workers are more likely to experience poor conditions and to be unaware of their rights. Small contractor farm use, which KEWWO expects to increase, further obscures the supply chain and intensifies worker vulnerability.

Even when the supply chain is traceable, the labelling standards laws do not always address the struggles faced by women workers. As Byron explains, ‘Being a woman affects the way you engage in employment and the way you can earn and negotiate for yourself. International labour standards [formulated by the International Labour Organisation], which the Ethical Trading Initiative code is based on, [are] great for the ‘average worker’, but its implementation isn’t necessarily protecting or supporting women. In lots of sectors they’re completely missed by the system.’

Taking action

In the UK, WWW engage with retailers over their efforts towards improving working conditions for women along their supply chain. They also encourage consumers to vocalise their disgust at the treatment of Kenyan flower industry workers. Byron stresses, however, that a boycott of Kenyan flowers is not currently advocated: ‘[Boycotting] is one of the biggest actions you can do to force a company to look at themselves … But the [workers’] response has always been: “No, because without our jobs, even though we get paid a pittance, we literally can’t feed our families. We’ll get fired tomorrow if there’s no income coming in.”‘ Without enforced labour contract law, suppliers will always lose workers rather than revenue.

Yet by raising public awareness of industry conditions, KEWWO and WWW have been able to persuade European importers to visit Kenyan farms for themselves. Subsequent negotiations between suppliers, buyers, KEWWO and local trades unions have led to a dramatic fall in flexible contract employment.

Over the past five years, the partnership has engaged with 10,000 workers, through six large farms, in Naivasha. With the formation of active women’s committees, it has managed to secure the provision of contracts and maternity leave for permanent workers, the implementation of sexual harassment policies and health and safety regulations. For KEWWO, however, the overriding aim of their project is women worker empowerment, both political and economic. Their daily activities therefore focus on civic rights education, community-based awareness raising and vocational and leadership training.

Byron explains KEWWO’s approach: ‘When workers understand where they fit into this globalised supply chain and how much they really contribute, it gives them a better chance of governance over themselves. The more they understand about the system the better chance they have to get involved politically and demand things.’ KEWWO president Kathini Maloba also sees civic education as the means of addressing Kenya’s ongoing political instability, stating: ‘The workers need a “digest” of the information so as to make informed decisions and avoid further being misused by the political class.’

Production not protection

As violence erupted in Naivasha, privately secured large farms offered protection to workers and housed Red Cross camps. Workers living off-site, however, experienced extreme insecurity. An anonymous worker relayed conditions: ‘People were hacked to death by machetes. There was lots of looting … it was survival of the fittest as you had to scavenge for firewood and affordable food.’

Yet flower exports have continued. Naivasha farm-worker Teresiah described the situation: ‘Some people have quit their jobs because they feel that they are risking their lives going to work. This means that those that are left are overworked.’ Bryon, in contact with WWW’s Kenyan partners, elaborates: ‘They hire people on the day … if people didn’t turn up for work they’d give jobs to people at the gates, as they went past.’ Production, not protection, is the clear priority.

Though WWW and KEWWO continue to challenge structures, the shocking experience of Kenyan women workers, providing beautiful flowers for Europe, demonstrates that relations of exploitation and domination not only live on beyond colonialism, but are unabated even amidst humanitarian crisis.


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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