NAIVASHA, KENYA: It is a chilly morning as Janet Njeri joins a group of men and women dressed in worn-out heavy sweaters leaving their mud-walled houses in the sprawling Karagita slum heading towards South Lake Road in Naivasha town.
Like many mothers employed in flower farms dotting the shores of Lake Naivasha, Njeri leaves behind her five-year-old child in the hands of aged women in filthy rooms that have been turned into day care centres. She treks for a short distance along a dirt road to a makeshift bus stop where they all queue waiting for old, smoking and creaking buses that ferry them into flower farms.
“It’s a challenge leaving behind your young children with a stranger and the long hours that we stand adversely affect production both at home and the workplace,” she says.
Ms Njeri is just one of the 90,000 farm workers employed directly in the booming flower industry in the horticulture hub. She has worked for over 10 years at the flower farm, after long search for job in the early 2000s.
“It’s not rosy for most of us here in flower farms especially female workers. Despite working for over 40 hours a week, we live from hand to mouth,” Njeri laments. “I am forced to live from paycheck to paycheck and in perennial debt.”
Another flower farm worker Joel Wafula (not his real name) speaks in hushed tones as he narrates his 15 years of toil and moil in one of the largest flower farms in Naivasha
Though he claims his monthly wage has grown eight fold, the cost of living in the sprawling slums has skyrocketed and now barely able to feed his family of seven.
“I live in a single room house with my family in Karagita. With my Sh8,700 monthly pay, I can barely provide for my large family,” says Mr Wafula. “The price of unga is high, my children can’t get good education.”
“For me, the thorns on the stems of roses will stick out longer than the rose as I please my employer and the lovers as I pack the flowers. I have never celebrated working in the flower farm. It’s just a means of providing for my family,” he adds with a distant look.
This is the state of affairs replicated at thousands of flower farms in Naivasha town, which hosts thousands of workers employed on more than two dozen flower farms in the shores of Lake Naivasha.
Despite the claim by flower farm owners of improving working conditions, the wages still lag behind the average living wage, which has been estimated at Sh18,000 per month for a family of four living in Naivasha town.
The informal estate is located along Moi South Lake road in Naivasha attracts majority of flower farm workers with rent for the mud-walled houses ranging from as low as Sh500 to Sh3,000 per month. However, poor sanitation coupled with collapsing houses, drunkards and youths openly smoking bhang sums up the status of the estate.
According to Jane Waithera who has lived in the estate for over 24 years, this has turned out to be her home where she has brought up her two teenage daughters in a single room.
“Once you come to live in this estate with your family, privacy goes out through the window as not many workers can afford the self-contained rooms,” she says.
“In this estate you can get one large fish for Sh20 which is enough for you and your family and that is how we survive because the wages we get from the farms are too little,” she adds.
Ms Waithera says the ‘kadogo economy’ in the slums means one can get anything from sugar worth Sh10 to paraffin and maize flour at Sh20 as the traders have realised that the residents are low-wage earners.
The situation paints a grim reality of workers struggling to survive yet their under appreciated work in the horticulture sector contributed about 1.6 per cent to the country’s GDP in 2016 .
The cut-flower sub-sector, according to data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics has recorded growth in volume and value of exports every year from 10,946 tonnes in 1988 to 86,480 tonnes in 2006, 120,220 tonnes in 2010, 136,601 tonnes in 2014 and 133,658 tonnes last year.
According to Kenya Flower Council, the floriculture sector currently employs more than 90,000 employees directly and over 500,000 indirectly nationally. Former Naivasha MP John Mututho says that workers in the floriculture sector are paid poorly compared to unskilled workers in Israel who earn around Sh120,000 per month.
“The amount of profit flower farmers make is very high but the main problem is that the workers have nothing to show for it,” he says.
Mr Mututho was one of the architects of the Flower Wages Council in 2012 which saw the Government establish an independent body to oversee the minimum wages in the sector.
The Flower Wages Council, which has representatives from Central Organisation of Trade Unions, Federation of Kenya employers, the Government and other stakeholders, looks into the issue of wages and the working conditions in flower farms.
There is a 2013-2015 Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that 59 flower farms signed out of around 170. Three large flower farms also have separate CBAs with the union.
According to the CBA signed in 2011, a typical farm worker employed in 1997 had a basic wage of Sh10,252 compared to Sh7,777 for a worker hired in 2004, while a worker employed in 2014 earned Sh5,401.
According to the CBA, workers were entitled to basic minimum wages, housing allowance (Sh1,700) and leave allowance of Sh2,500.
The workers are further entitled to 21 days pay for each year of service in case of redundancy, gratuity of 23 days of basic pay for each year of service for workers with more than five years of continuous service and funeral expenses if a worker dies (Sh27,000).
This is, however, inadequate when compared to findings contained in a study by Fairtrade International on wages in Naivasha in 2014. The study shows that flower farm workers should earn at least Sh17,000 monthly to be able to comfortably provide for food, water, healthcare, affordable housing and education.
“Our living wage (Sh17,276 net take home pay after taxes and Sh18,392 gross pay considering taxes) is much higher than the statutory minimum wage for agriculture (Sh4,854) although minimum wage workers sometimes receive in-kind benefits,” the study noted.
According to labour expert Joel Omollo who has done extensive research on flower farm wages, the working conditions have improved with years though there are some grey areas that need to be addressed.
“Years back, cases of sexual harassment targeting women was the order of the day but this has reduced drastically,” he says.
Mr Omollo says the most contentious issues remain the salaries paid to workers against the perceived high earnings by their employers. According to him, the farmers pay their workers between Sh7,500 and Sh15,000 depending on one’s position and years of service.
He, however, points to some archaic labour laws for the low wages, citing the Government’s minimum wage as one of the challenges. “The farmers have for years complained about the high cost of labour but they never reveal how much they earn from the lucrative trade,” he says. The Kenya Plantations and Agriculture Workers Union Secretary General, Naivasha branch, Ferdinand Juma says that with the influence of consumers, many farmers have been forced to change.
He says many certifications from the market require farmers to meet various standards before their flowers are allowed into the market. For flowers destined for the United Kingdom, it is Fair Trade, Netherlands is MPS, Germany is Fair Flowers while Kenya Flower Council certifies locally.
“We have seen an improvement in the working conditions in the farms though many of the farmers have blocked their workers from joining the union,” says Mr Juma says.
Cases of harassment have gone down, he says, but some farms do not provide their workers with protective gear. Other areas that need to be addressed are casualisation of labour, overtime, maternity leaves and the right to join unions. “In all the flower farms, workers are united over the low wages against the high cost of living,” he says.
According to Kenya Flowers Council Chief Executive Officer Jane Ngige, there has been improvement in flower farms in the last ten years, following new labour laws and certification standards for various export markets. “It’s true the sector’s image was tainted some years ago but this has changed drastically due to the stringent rules introduced by KFC and the consumers in Europe,” she says.
Ms Ngige says the introduction of various codes of conduct in the sector has seen workers get improved earnings and good working conditions.
“Sometimes, the sector has come under unfair attack from the press and human rights activists - a move that has affected the market,” she says.
The council’s Chairman Richard Fox defended the farmers, saying the sector is one of the best paying in the country despite the high cost production.
-Additional information from Code for Africa’s innovateAFRICA fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.