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.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility


7