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Flower firm garlands workers with rosy benefit

By | October 19th 2009

by Antony Gitonga

It is a cold, windy morning as a middle-aged man joins fellow flower farm workers trooping from their homes to their workplace.

With a rusty padlock, he fasted a rickety door to secure his personal effects in a mud structure that he lives in. Often, thugs break in and steal household items.

Further down street, a mother is engaged in a bitter quarrel with a landlady over pending one month’s rent arrears.

The lady, flanked by a mean-looking ‘bodyguard’ warns the tenant that she has until the end of the week to raise the Sh500 rent or her personal effects would be thrown out.

Welcome to the cacophony that is the daily life for hundreds of flower farm workers living in the sprawling Karagita slum and other unplanned estates in the outskirts of Naivasha town.

For the flower farm workers in Naivasha, the biggest hurdle that they face is housing, not to mention other misery they endure as poorly paid labourers in the lucrative floriculture industry.

Of the 57 flower farms in Naivasha, only a handful like Sher Karuturi, Oserian and Shalimar offer decent housing for their workforce.

Others leave workers to seek cheap slum shacks. This has seen the proliferation of several unplanned estates coming up around the lakeside town.

For years, the lucrative floriculture sector has faced bashing from human rights activists, politicians and the media over poor handling of their workers.

Many are times when flower farms have been accused of being profit-oriented at the expense of their workers who languish in poverty and misery.

Scoop back

However, the trend to scoop back some of their fortunes to the welfare of the workers appears to be catching on.

In a rare gesture of worker welfare, over 800 workers from Panda Flowers will be proud owners of decent homes close to their working place.

In a joint project between Christian based Habitat for Humanity Kenya and the flower farm, workers in the farm were all smiles a week ago as they were moved from their slum shacks into decent housing.

Already, 34 families are living in their stoned wall houses which were officially opened at Kayole estate along the Nairobi-Nakuru highway.

Over 200 others are proud owners of plots while it is a matter of time before their colleagues get a share of the land to put up their houses.

As their colleagues in other farms grapple with slum misery, workers at Panda Flowers are living in three-bedroom houses which feature a kitchen and a store. According to the farm director Mr Richard Hechle, the farm has already acquired over 80 acres through the Panda Self help group.

"The land will be sub divided into 50 by 100 plots which will be enough for our 855 workers plus some of the management staff," he says.

According to him, for every bunch of flower that is sold in Europe, workers get 10 per cent of the profit through their self help group.

Final decision

"This year we expect around Sh27 million which goes to the workers’ community where they make the final decision on its use," he said.

It’s this money that the workers bought the land with which was equally distributed among members at a cheaper price.

Already, 220 workers have received their plots, 34 houses are complete and six more are in the last stages before the owners move in.

Hechle says the idea came about in 2007 when Habitat for Humanity joined the farm in improving the living conditions of their workers.

He says a deal was struck for construction of units costing Sh240,000 each, with Panda Sacco advancing the workers Sh150,000 and Habitat Sh90,000.

"The workers will pay the Habitat money in four years at a rate of eight per cent and then repay the Sacco loan thereafter," he said.

The farm holds the plot title deed as security and once the occupier clears the outstanding debt they are handed all the legal documents.

"Despite the risks involved, we get in return more loyalty, hard work and less staff turnover," Hechle adds.

And the dream became reality when the first lot moved in last week in a fun-filled ceremony graced by Deputy Prime Minister Musalia Mudavadi.

As poets gave recitals, the big smiles from the workers summed it all in the occasion dubbed ‘3000 and beyond Habitat for Humanity day’.

Owning house

According to one of the beneficiaries Mr Joseph Kamau, he had never one time dreamed of ever owning a house leave along staying in a stone walled structure.

Kamau, a harvester in Panda for the last four years, tells of lost hope as he tried to make ends meet on the salary he earned before ‘heavens opened’.

Most of the workers had lived at Mithuri slum, a place associated with crime, drugs, illicit brew and police swoops.

The joy of the workers who received keys to their houses was summed up by Martha Wangui who said: "Now we can see the beauty of the flowers we have been harvesting.

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