Female flower pickers in Kenya can face many hardships in their work - often finding themselves victims of sexual harassment or earning a wage so low they struggle to get by - but initiatives are in place to try to improve the workers' rights.
Picking flowers on a local flower farm brings families to the shores of Lake Naivasha, north of Nairobi during the harvesting season. In rural Kenya, there isn’t much else for women, raising children alone. It’s hard for them to refuse regular work, a school nearby, and a new home. However, it’s claimed that worker’s rights are being exploited on an industrial scale, with allegations of low pay, unfair dismissals, and sexual harassment of a predominantly female workforce. Women have to be careful to dress appropriately because the men complain that when the women wear skirts they feel like having sex with them.
Some women are forced to leave farms after they refuse to have sex with a male supervisor. Farms certified by Fairtrade International offer more protection. Aware of the frequency of incidents of sexual assault, Fairtrade has set up a gender committee on each of its 39 flower farms in Kenya, which encourages women to report violations.
Tsitsi Choruma, global gender adviser and chief operating officer for Fairtrade Africa, believes these structures are necessary to ensure harassment is reported. "We need to build confidence - the softer skills mean these women are able to talk. We must build the power within them. We also need to involve men to enhance equality and empowerment."
But for the remaining 60% of flower farms in Kenya that do not have the Fairtrade reporting structures in place, holding perpetrators to account is complex. Andrew Odete, regional project manager at Hivos International, a Kenyan human rights organization, says that more needs to be done to address the sexual harassment of female staff. "Many women live in fear of losing their marriages if they are accused of being complicit in that act. Because of power relations, if it is the director or the manager accused of a violation, the choice as to who must leave is an easy one for many farms."
Low pay is also widespread across the horticulture sector in Kenya. On average, a harvester earns $60 to $120 per month. This wage falls far below what workers require to sustain themselves.
While discussions about a minimum wage are continuing within the horticulture sector, Stephen Oburo from the Federation of Kenyan Employers, an affiliate of Kenya's Labor Ministry, claims that the responsibility should be shifted to employees rather than employers in order to exercise fair workers' rights. "If these women can't even inform union leaders or the Ministry of Labor about their wages, they are doing a disservice to themselves and this country," he states. "Do they want us to put a policeman on each farm to make sure these violations don't happen? We don't have the resources to do that."
For many flower harvesters, safeguarding their rights is primarily managed by trade unions and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Jane Ngige, chief executive of the Kenya Flower Council, says that supporting farms to come up with innovative answers to old problems will be the next step forward. "When women get their wages, they lose their money to thieves. They are often attacked on the way home, or their husbands find 'better ways' for them to use that money. In response, the farms installed ATMs. These women are now running bank accounts and you cannot imagine what an impact that has had on these workers."
The role that consumers in Europe play can also make an impact, Andrew Odete from Hivos says. "We have found that there is a willingness by the consumer to pay 35 euro cents (30p) per bouquet of flowers in order that that money comes back upstream and translates into a livable wage for a worker on the farms of Lake Naivasha."