By David Njagi
February left many Kenyans with a fresh lease of love and romance as Valentine Day celebrations peaked. But few have a vague idea that someone in the value chain is paying every bunch of roses purchased with a health price – and even death.
The extent that floriculture is costing Kenya in terms of healthcare is captured in a new documentary which brings to light the heavy burden that Kenyans are paying at the expense of a billion worth export industry.
Testimonials by casts in the Women of Flowers Documentary Film indicate that workers in the sector are so poorly paid that they cannot foot a hospital bill, where in most cases they catch ailments from toxic chemicals in their line of duty.
The Film, by Khamis Ramadhan, also captures grim voices of women who have had to give in to sexual demands by their superiors to keep their jobs, while others have watched their marriages slide away due to the time they spend away from their families.
Confirming that the scenes which are replete with gross human rights abuses represent the pure truth, Catherine Mumbi, a former casual labourer at a flower farm in Naivasha caps it all when she says she lost her job after declining to give in to sexual favours.
When Mumbi fell sick, doctors diagnosed her with differing conditions including liver as well as chest complications and Asthma, a situation that forced her on sick leave to seek treatment.
“When I felt better I went back but my boss demanded that I have sex with him so that I could keep my old job,” says Mumbi. “I declined and since then I have been jobless. I am surviving on the generosity of well wishers.”
Lobby groups confirm that sexual harassment is widespread in flower farms, but even more alarming are details alleging that in some instances employers change the labels of chemicals to disguise them from those that have been identified with laces of toxins.
“This explains why strange diseases are being reported in health centers around flower farms,” explains Charles Kasuku, a social worker in Naivasha. “Recently a former worker died from what doctors said was chemical complications.”
Experts from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) say the most prevalent diseases caused by chemical exposure include liver problems, respiratory complications, cancer as well as sexual incapacitation.
“But the severe effects of these exposures could come many years later after workers have been sacked from their jobs,” says Dr. Mohamed Karama from KEMRI. “People should not work for extended hours in these greenhouses.”
Legal representatives say that the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention binds governments to protect its working force from industrial excesses and abuses.
Closer to home, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) requires every flower farm to establish a wetland for recycling water contaminated with toxins.
At the same time, they say, trade movements are backed by international trade charters such as the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which are expected to empower them to rally for the welfare of the worker.
But Mary Kambo, a programme officer with Community Based Development Services (CBDS) says the ILO Convention is not being implemented, while labour inspection, a task entrusted to the Ministry of Labour, does not happen anymore.
However, some unionists say they are keen on seeking the welfare of workers in Kenya, but their efforts are being frustrated by the umbrella body, the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU).
“Those who are seen to be very vocal in voicing the plight of workers are being intimidated by COTU through threats of sacking,” says Jimi Masege, an officer with Aviation Industry Trade Union (AITU).
Questions have been asked repeatedly by human rights bodies about the flower farms’ social responsibility genuineness, but Kenya Flower Council (KFC) says it has rallied its members to comply with health and environmental standards.
According to Jane Ngige, the KFC chief executive officer, requirements such as trade, statutory, environmental, health, safety, traceability and social standards are for instance enshrined in the Council’s Code of Practice and the Fair Trade set of rules.
But the weight of enforcement has in most instances cornered the workers into further destitution, lobby groups say.
While most workers are employed for long years on casual basis, they are forced to join unions within their work places, a privilege that costs them high prices, but with little to show in terms of service delivery from the employer-employee relations.
“KFC only caters for the rich producers and not the struggling poor in the farms,” says Benjamin Tilapei, an activist from Isinya. “The Council spends huge sums of money to train us in a week about the production chain but does nothing to the plight of the affected poor.”