Why Kenyan flower farms is no bed of roses

Workers sort flowers for export. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

It is a chilly morning and Janet Njeri* joins a group of workers dressed in heavy worn-out sweaters, leaving the sprawling Karagita slum for South Lake Road in Naivasha town, 90 kilometres west of Kenya's capital, Nairobi.

Like many women employed in the flower farms dotting the shores of Lake Naivasha, Njeri leaves her five-year-old daughter at a daycare centre which caters to hundreds of flower farm workers.

She treks a short distance to a makeshift bus stop, where she queues with her colleagues to wait for old, smoking company buses to ferry them to work.

“It’s not easy for any mother having to leave her children under the care of others, just so that she can fend for them. The long hours that we stand have a crippling effect on our performance at home and in the workplace. Sadly, this is a reality for many of us employed here,”Janet Njeri, flower farm worker said.

Ms Njeri is one of 30,000 farm workers employed in more than 30 flower farms in the booming horticulture hub of Naivasha. She has been picking flowers for over a decade.

“It has not been rosy; it has been a struggle especially for 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 staff, Joel Wafula*, speaks in a hushed tone as he narrates his 15-year experience on one of the largest flower farms in Naivasha. Although his monthly wage has grown, he says, the cost of living in the sprawling slums has skyrocketed. He says he barely able to feed his family of seven.

“I live in a single room house with my family in Karagita. With my Sh8, 700 (USD 84) monthly pay, I can barely provide for my large family,” says Mr Wafula. “The price of unga (maize meal) 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 consumers abroad as I pack the flowers. I have never celebrated working on the flower farm. It’s just a means of providing for my family,” he adds with a distant look.

This is the story of thousands of flower farm workers in Naivasha town.

Despite claims by farm owners of improving working conditions, the flower staff’s wages still lag behind the living wage. Women bear the brunt of this because in majority of the cases they have families to take care of on top of their own personal well-being.

Pauline Ndumi* says she started working for a prime flower farm in 2003. She was fired earlier this year after a pay slip dispute.

“I joined the company in 2003 as a general worker. After 14 years of diligent service, I was dismissed unprocedurally alongside hundreds of my colleagues. At that time, my monthly pay was Sh12, 000 (USD 116.50),” she says.

She is part of a group of more than 400 workers allegedly dismissed after questioning their employer’s move to send their pay slips by email.

“On March 4, the company circulated a memo indicating that employees will be receiving pay slips though emails. When we sought to find out why, we were instead suspended for two weeks and later dismissed,” she says.

Harassment at work

Ms Ndumi’s story is a testimony of the thin line underpaid women workers walk to overlook violations of their rights in a bid to save their source of livelihood.

She and her colleagues struggle to get their dues and remain jobless for months.

Another dismissed staff member regrets the effect on their livelihood, following the legal quagmire facing Karaturi Flower Farm.

“As a single mother, losing a job has pushed me to the brink. I suffer severe chest pains because of exposure to chemicals over a long time. I look like an old person yet I'm not. It is the illness,” she said.

Other female employees have alleged cases of sexual harassment. This harassment is an open secret, especially from randy supervisors who take advantage of those desperate to keep their jobs.

“Some of us have faced numerous sexual harassment from our male supervisors. This situation is worsened by the opaque reporting mechanism and lack of support from the management. Once you refuse to give in to their demands, it is easy to lose the job,” said another woman farm employee.

She adds, “I know many of my colleagues who have resumed employment after they succumbed to these predators. I turned down my boss and here I am jobless. It is a sorry state of affairs there for a woman.”

Karagita Slum, Naivasha

The majority of flower farm workers live in Karagita Estate, located along Moi South Lake Road in Naivasha. Most of the population live in mud-walled houses with monthly rent ranging from as low as Sh500 (USD 4.85) to Sh3, 000 (USD 29).

Residents here are accustomed to poor sanitation and collapsing houses. Drunkards and youths openly smoking bhang (cannabis) is a common sight.

Jane Waithera* has lived here for 24 years. She lives in a single room with her two teenage daughters.

“Here, privacy goes out the window. The meagre pay cannot allow most of us to live in the self-contained rooms which are quite decent” she says.

These people cannot afford decent meals either. Ms Withera says with just Sh20 (USD 0.19), one is able to get a large fish for their families.

The slum dwellers have invented ''kadogo economy'' in a bid to stretch their fast-depleting resources. ‘Kadogo economy’ means one can buy anything from sugar worth Sh10 (USD 0.1) to paraffin and maize flour at Sh20 (USD 0.19).

One worker, Charles Murage* says with his house allowance, he can only afford a one-roomed house without water or electricity.

“We are paid a paltry Sh1, 500 (USD 15) house allowance. The cheapest one room house goes for Sh3, 500 (USD 34). We are living like paupers but who cares to listen to our pleas anyway,” he says.

The houses have poor ventilation that leaves occupants exposed to high levels of smoke inhalation. This increases their risk of contracting chest-related ailments.

Despite the significant growth in the floriculture industry, there have been challenges that threaten the efficiency of the business. Even though record profits are posted yearly, there is little or no improvement in the socio-economic status and well-being of workers.

According to Kenya Flower Council (KFC), the floriculture sector currently employs more than 90,000 employees directly and over 500,000 indirectly nationally. In Naivasha town, for instance, more than two dozen small and large scale farms have set up shops.

Some of the houses in the sprawling Karagita estate in Naivasha where majority of flower farm workers live. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Wages on Kenyan flower farms are highly influenced by the strong unionisation within the sector.

Currently, the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers’ Union and Agricultural Employers’ Association (AEA) negotiate Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs) for the flower sector every two years whereby basic pay, in-kind provisions, cash allowances, working hours, leave and other benefits are specified.

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 general farm worker employed in 1997 had a basic wage of Sh10,252 (USD 99.50) compared to Sh7,777 (USD 75.50) for a worker hired in 2004, while a worker employed in 2014 earned Sh5,401 (USD 52.4).

Flower farm 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.

This is, however, inadequate when compared to findings contained in a study by Fairtrade International on wages in Naivasha in 2014.

With a decline of real wages due to inflation, several organizations like the Fairtrade International, Hivos International, True Price, among others, have helped develop living wage guidelines, which would enable workers in Naivasha live decent life.

The study shows that flower farm workers should at least a gross living wage of Sh18,492 (USD 179) monthly in order to comfortably provide for food, water, healthcare, affordable housing, and education.

Our living wage (Sh17, 276 (USD 168) net take home pay after taxes and Sh18, 452 (USD 179) gross pay considering taxes) is much higher than the statutory minimum wage for agriculture (Sh4,854 (USD 47) although minimum wage workers sometimes receive in-kind benefits.

Fairtrade Study, 2014

“Our estimate of housing costs per month is Sh5,000 (USD 58.1) for rent, Sh1,200 (USD 14.0) for cooking fuel, Sh600 (USD 7.0) for electricity, and Sh900 (USD 10.5) for water. All non-food and non-housing costs for decency for our living wage were estimated at Sh9,830 (USD 114) per month for our family of 5 persons,” The Fairtrade Study shows.

According to Joel Omollo, a labour expert who has done extensive research on the flower sector, the working conditions have improved in the last few years, but there are still 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 issue remains the perceived comparisons of salaries paid to workers against the high earnings by their employers.

According to him, the farmers pay their workers between Sh7,500 (USD 72.8) and Sh15,000 (USD 145.60) 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 flower firms have for years complained about the high cost of labour, but they never real how much they earn from the lucrative trade,” said Mr Omollo.

Karagita Slum Naivasha where thousands of flower workers reside. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Kenya Plantations and Agriculture Workers Union Naivasha branch Secretary General, Ferdinand Juma says that with the influence of consumers, many flower firms 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 Fairtrade; Netherlands is MPS; Germany is Fair Flowers; while Kenya Flower Council certifies locally.

Mr. Juma says most flower companies in Naivasha currently have operational Collective Bargaining Agreements with the union which guarantees minimum wages above the general wages set by the Labour ministry.

“Over the years we have managed to push for Collective Bargaining Agreements with 70 per cent of total workforce in flower farms in Naivasha now unionized. This is a positive improvement over the years,” he added.

He further added that the union has negotiated an increase in minimum basic pay from Sh6,048 (USD 58.71) to Sh6,579 (USD 63.9) in Collective Bargaining Agreements with the Agricultural Employers Association, which brings together more than 60 flower companies.

He also noted that the union has negotiated for an increase in minimum basic pay from in collective bargaining agreement with Agricultural Employers Association which bring together over 60 flower companies.

Juma says that cases of sexual harassment against women, who constitute more than half of the workforce, are now a central part of union and flower farm management, following complaints from women workers.

“Sexual harassment has been an issue reported in the sector for many years. Due to sustained campaigns some flower farms are now taking action on managers found guilty of this vice. We had a human resource manager sent home for sexual harassment,”Ferdinard Juma, Union official said.

He however acknowledges that many flower farm workers feel the wages cannot sustain their families with good housing and a quality life.

“As a union we have tried pushing for higher wages with flower companies. However, since this is a negotiated agreement we often get what is agreeable to all parties at the negotiation table. This is not necessary the living wage,” he added.

He notes that some companies have opted to employ casuals on short-term contracts in a bid to cut costs, while others send workers home on grounds of redundancy - only to rehire them on short-term contracts.

When compared with prevailing wages, even a flower farm worker with more than 15 work years, their pay is still 30 per cent lower than the living wage.

According to Kenya Flowers Council (KFC) 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,” CEO KFC Jane Ngige said.

She expressed concern over the future of the sector noting that the country was facing stiff competition from neighbouring Ethiopia.

“We are faced by many challenges including cost of energy, high wage bill, double taxation, farm inputs, security and bureaucracy, but we are soldiering on,” she added

Workers at Oserian flower farm one of the largest farms in Naivasha. [Antony Gitonga, Standard]

Case for living wage

Flower farm workers interviewed for the story are concerned about the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage. This they say if bridged, they say, it will allow them to live decent lives and lift their families out of poverty.

While this is a major concern to the union representing lower farm workers, the failure by government to significantly raise minimum wages for agricultural sector has been blamed for stagnating wages.

In 2012 a survey by Kenya Human Rights Commission revealed that over 80 per cent of flower farm workers did not approve the efforts put by union to negotiate for better wages.

Data from Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows the cut-flower sector has recorded growth volume and value of exports yearly from 10,946 tonnes in 1988 to 133,658 tonnes in 2016.

A general worker hired with more than 17 years of service has a basic wage of Sh10,252 (USD 99.50) while those hired in 2004 earns a basic wage of Sh7,777 (USD 75.50). A new employee in 2014 would go home with Sh5,401 (USD 53).

The majority of flower farm workers (about 75 per cent) in Kenya are women, who mostly work as pickers and graders. Additionally, more than half of these women are single mothers and the sole providers for their families.

According to Living Wage research from True Price, the living wage benchmark for a single mother with three children in the Lake Naivasha area amounts to Sh 25,778.96 (USD 251) per month.

On the other hand, a two-parent household providing for three children needs Sh 20,427.90 (USD 195.98) per month.

According to True Price, 2016 a general flower farm worker employed in 1997 earns 21 per cent of living wage; while his compatriot who joined in 2014 earns 47 per cent below living wage.

A flower farm worker earns approximately Sh2.52 (USD 0.02) while a flower grower earns Sh10.06 (USD 0.10) (True Price 2015) per rose stem sold in European supermarkets.

According to a 2016 study by True Price Hivos, if the price of a sweet rose stem is raised by Sh2.52 (USD 0.02), the flower farm worker in Naivasha can earn a living wage,

*Not their real name