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Pain, misery as Karuturi flower workers unpaid for months

RIFT VALLEY
By Antony Gitonga | February 9th 2014
Workers from Karuturi flower farm in Naivasha demonstrate on Moi South Lake Road demanding their wages. [PHOTO: ANTONY GITONGA/STANDARD]

By Antony Gitonga

Naivasha, Kenya: Moi South Lake Road in Naivasha oozes opulence. Hundreds of hotels, and beautiful homes line up the way, but what stands out are hundreds of acres of flower farms.

Imposing greenhouses dot the farms and hundreds of farm workers can be seen milling around the structures.

Tractors and refrigerated trucks complete the picture of a thriving floriculture business. One could say everything is rosy.

But wait a minute.

On one section of the road stands a row of  houses. Next to them are fading greenhouses that have seen better days.

Raw sewer, rising mounds of garbage, falling bathroom doors, dirty and emaciated minors are what welcome visitors to this quarters on this extremely hot day.

Inside the greenhouses lie withered plants, low hanging nylon papers, stalled pumping machines.

A disillusioned group of workers eye your every move.

This is what is left of Karuturi flower farm in Naivasha.

 Once the world leading grower of roses at one million stems per day and with a work force of 3,000 workers, the company has been reduced to a shell.

The farm is a far cry from what was hailed by human rights groups in 2006 as worker friendly.

With no power and water in their living quarters, the workers and their children are faced with the danger of disease outbreaks and even Department of Public Health has at one time warned the farm with closure.

The farm’s football team Karuturi FC was once the pride and joy of Naivasha but it has since been demoted from the Kenya Premier League and many of their players have left for other teams.

The farm production has dropped from the dizzying one million rose stems daily in its heyday. Many are the times the quality of the flowers is wanting. Sometimes there are no flowers to talk about.

Many of the suppliers have already pulled out leaving the once beautiful roses to wilt because of lack of payment.

The farm’s once famous day care centres and state of the art hospitals are just but empty halls now.

Learning in the nursery, primary and secondary schools in the farm have been adversely affected by the financial crisis that has hit the flower farm.  The workers, once some of the happiest have been reduced to a sneering and disappointed lot.

Last week, they entered another month, one in as many, without payment. Every end month, the workers have been forced to block the busy Moi South Lake Road to demand their rights.

But where did the rain start beating the farm?

In 2007, the farm then owned by Sher Agencies changed hands from a Dutch investor Gerrit Barnhoon to the Karuturi family at a cost of around 50 million euros.

“This is to confirm that the ownership of Sher Agencies Ltd has changed and the new owners are Karuturi Sai Ramakhrishna and Karuturi Srinivas Rao,” read a statement.

The new owners promised goodies for the workers and the neighbouring community with commitment to improve their working and living conditions.

They were true to their word.

But before the dust could settle, a land dispute erupted between the new owners and a neighbouring farm over the ownership of a parcel of land sold by the Dutch investor. The farm lost the control of the estimated 12 acres after a court battle.

However, the introduction of foreign managers in the farm may be viewed as the genesis of the slide.

The move did not augur well with the management with some of the experienced staff leaving in droves adversely affecting production.

Out went the company security staff to be replaced by a private farm whose term did not last long.

Later transportation of flowers became a problem and again this was handed over to a private company as signs of a financial crisis creeping in.

According to a senior worker who has since left the farm, the Karuturi family trusted senior managers who ended up messing the operations.

“The managers were eager to make their money at the expense of the farm and this led to a crisis which saw the company miss out on its targets,” says the former worker.

What followed was massive shake up that saw new expatriates mainly from India brought in to manage the farm but they ended up making things worse.

“Hiring and firing of managers became the order of the day and this affected the workers morale and the running of the farm,”

The farm soon lost its place in the international market as quality of produce dropped and labour unrest became the order of the day.

Soon, the Kenya Revenue Authority was knocking on their gate. The farm was taken to court for tax evasion. The case is still pending at the High Court after the farm appealed the ruling.

“In 2012 and 2013 major suppliers of chemicals, fertilisers and packaging materials pulling out,” says the source.

Lack of drugs

Things took a turn a for the worst. Workers started missing their salaries, their statutory deductions were not being submitted on time and so was their Sacco savings.

“We got concerned when we missed the first salary and soon the management was paying in phases of two or three,” says a worker.

Production and quality have dropped to their worst ever levels as the living conditions of the workers continue to worsen.

Currently workers are owed over three months in unpaid salaries and many are sleeping hungry unsure of their fate.

A confession by one of the female workers paints a gloomy situation. The single mother of one says many single women have been forced into prostitution to make ends meet.

She says that majority of the workers just want their earnings and will leave once they are paid.

“We are sleeping hungry unsure of tomorrow, suffering as we seek justice, poisoned by the farm chemicals and all we are asking for is to be given what it rightfully ours,” she says.

Central Organisation of Trade Unions (Cotu) Secretary General Francis Atwoli has written to the Head of State to intervene in the current situation.

Mr Atwoli is blaming Labour Cabinet Secretary Kambi Kazungu for failing to intervene.

In a letter to the President Uhuru Kenyatta, Atwoli notes that the management of the farm has, deliberately continued to perpetuate non-payment of wages against.

“Your Excellency, the workers at this farm have gone for a year without a salary,”

The fiery trade unionist alleges that owners are involved in diverting the farm’s earnings to overseas banks, subjecting workers and their families to further desperation and agony

Senior officers from the Ministry of Labour recently toured the farm on a fact finding mission but their report is yet to be made public.

According to Kamau Njuguna, chairman of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Nakuru county chaptere,  there is urgent need to address the woes facing the flower farm.

“Already hundreds of people who relied on medical assistance at Karuturi hospital are suffering after the closure of the hospital,” he says.

He says that the hospital which belongs to the flower farm has slowed down its operations after electricity and water supply were disconnected over unpaid bills.

The 42-bed hospital was running on its knees due to lack of drugs and other crucial supplies.

Njuguna notes that the farm was the largest producer of roses in the world at one million stems per day but the Government had failed to intervene over the ongoing crisis.

He says that if the farm is closed down, thousands of people who benefited directly and indirectly will suffer adversely.

Kamau is not alone as Nakuru Senator James Mungai has promised to intervene in the crisis and promised to seek a lasting solution.

He says the closure of the farm will spell doom for hundreds of workers and affect the economy of the lakeside town.

He says they have already discussed the issue with Nakuru Governor Kinuthia Mbugua and is optimistic that the crisis will be resolved.

“We are willing to meet the farm management and other stakeholders to address this problem that has affected many families,” he says.

Recently in a press advertisement, the farm management said the tax issue was been handled by the country’s law courts.

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