After 10 years, one secretly pregnant woman exposes the thornier underbelly of Kenya's flower industry
Isn’t it nice to work in an industry whose products bring happiness to others? Mary Ogada cannot say yes. At 33 and now secretly pregnant with her fourth child, she already knows she is on her way out.
She hides her pregnancy in a crumpled dress that she covers with the green coat provided at the flower farm in Naivasha.
Mary hopes she will feign sickness on her due date and resume work after two weeks, because it is low season anyway.
The law says she should get three-month fully paid maternity leave, which rarely happens at her flower farm.
“If I take as much as a month of unpaid maternity, I will be lucky to return,” she says.
She is no longer the supple school dropout who joined the farm some 10 years ago. The sagging skin, wrinkles on her face and the paling pigmentation are testament to a grueling decade.
“If I go away, no one would admire me to allow me back,” she says. “I know that’s quite a bold statement to make, but hear me out.”
The Kenyan flower industry, in one way, operates like the modelling industry. Modeling favors young women for their appearance and often treats them like sexualized objects to sell products.
Mary says many flower farms also favour young women under 27 years, not because they have special skills or can sell flowers, but because some male managers prefer them for sex.
“Young girls have no responsibilities so they are easy to manipulate and take advantage of. But we have to compete with them when seeking casual jobs, and often it is men who decide,” she explains.
With 10 years of experience, Mary and other long-serving casuals would be the grand dames of the flower farms. But they are not.
Mary, who is unmarried, says this is the little dirty secret hidden at most farms. She claims many farms profit from women’s insecurities because most are afraid of losing their jobs, and cannot speak out.
The industry itself is particularly sensitive to criticism because flowers are mostly just about emotions, about making others happy.
So if the consumers realise some of their flowers are grown by ‘sex slaves’, sales might well begin to collapse.
The problem is widespread.
According to the Kenya Flower Council, the floriculture sector currently employs more than 90,000 people directly and 70 per cent of them are women.
At least 30,000 of these workers are based in Naivasha, while the rest are sprawled all over the country as far as Nanyuki, Thika, Nairobi and Nakuru among other places.
Ferdinand Juma, the head of the Naivasha branch of the Kenya Plantations and Agriculture Workers Union, says they receive complaints of sexual harassment from women workers almost daily.
“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,” he says.
Workers from a Naivasha-based flower farm carry twigs and placards after going on strike over poor working conditions recently/ Photo Correspondent
The Institute of Development Studies of the University of Nairobi partly blames the feminisation of flower farming for this.
“Most of the people working in the industry are women — 60-70 per cent — this is ‘feminisation’ of the industry,” says Dr Joshua Kivuva, a researcher at the IDS.
The figures come from a study IDS carried recently, in partnership with the Nairobi-based Partnership for African Social and Governance Research.
Dr Kivuva says many of the women suffer under poor terms of employment because there are no employment-specific policies in horticulture.
Mary, who lives in Karagita area of Naivasha, says most families she knows are broken, and sexually transmitted infections through rape and forced sex are rampant.
“Young workers face sexual aggression with threats of reprisals in greenhouses supervised by men. But for me the problem is that I am old and cannot get promotion or better workstation like packaging even if I’m pregnant,” she says.
It is difficult to hold perpetrators to account, because they are not even reported. This is especially so in farms without the Fairtrade reporting structures in place.
In 2012, the Kenya Human Rights Commission published a groundbreaking study on the labour situation in Kenyan flower farms.
“The study focused on working conditions around six key areas: equal pay for equal work, maternity and paternity, child support, sexual harassment, dismissals, casual labour and contracting processes,” says Joyce Gema, the principal researcher who led the study team and compiled the report, titled Wilting in Bloom.
Sexual harassment incidents were reported in 54 per cent of the workplaces sampled.
Thika flower farms had the highest number of sexual harassment complaints due to the geographical set ups, where farms are located deep inside coffee plantations, a conducive environment for sexual predators.
“Generally, for all companies, 67 per cent of respondents reported sanctions against sexual harassment are not adequate to deter the vice,” says the report.
Six years later, the situation has only improved slightly, says Eunice Waweru, head of the Kiambu-based Workers’ Rights Watch.
WRW was established in 2000 to empower workers on their rights and responsibilities in ensuring a workplace free from labour rights violations.
“We are piloting a policy to stop sexual harassment in flower farms. We have seen great improvement in farms that have already adopted the policy,” says Waweru.
“We also equip gender committees in flower farms to carry out investigations themselves without being intimidated,” she adds.
Recently, Andrew Odete, regional project manager at Hivos International, a Kenyan human rights organisation, partly blamed sexual harassment on power relations.
"Because of power relations, if it is the director or the manager accused of a (sexual) violation, the choice as to who must leave is an easy one for many farms," Odete said.
This situation is aggravated by the low pay for women, compared to men.
Most workers in the greenhouses work for Sh7, 500 to Sh15, 000 a month.
Mary is paid Sh8, 000 every month, after statutory deductions. She recently took a loan at the local Sacco to pay school fees for her first daughter, who joined form one this year. The other two children, a seven-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy, attend a nearby primary school.
“They deduct Sh1, 500 every month so now I earn Sh6, 500 every month.”
Mary says most of her colleagues with school-going children are trapped on loans to get by and cannot leave their jobs, however underpaid they are.
She leaves the house at 5.30am every morning to reach the farm by 7am, and returns home at 6pm.
The industry in Kenya is increasingly dominated by Dutch flower growers, who have relocated their flower production here mainly because of “favorable” local wage costs and the many hours of sunshine.
Flowers bring about positive emotional feelings to buyers, but this would change if they know about the uncertified farms that engage in poor labour practices.
Stephen Oburo from the Federation of Kenyan Employers, an affiliate of Kenya's Labour Ministry, recently told the BBC the employers couldn’t be blamed for the low salaries.
"If these women can't even inform union leaders or the Ministry of Labour about their wages, they are doing a disservice to themselves and this country," he said.
"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."
The Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers’ Union and the Agricultural Employers’ Association usually negotiate Collective Bargaining Agreements for the flower sector every two years whereby basic pay, in-kind provisions, cash allowances, working hours, leave and other benefits are specified.
One CBA signed in 2011 says a general farm worker employed in 1997 should earn a basic wage of Sh10,252 compared to Sh7,777 for a worker hired in 2004, while a worker employed in 2014 earned Sh5,401.
When you adjust these wages to Kenya’s runaway inflation, the picture is grim.
However, several organisations including the Fairtrade International, Hivos International and True Price have helped develop living wage guidelines, to help workers get decent pay.
Mary says women earn much less than men, even if they do the same jobs. “In greenhouses its women who tend the flowers and even package them because they are considered gentle, but even if men did these jobs, they would earn more than we do,” she says.
In Wilting in Bloom, 69 per cent of respondents said women and men do not to earn equally, as more men are concentrated in managerial positions and women serving in management are mainly relegated to lower level supervisory jobs that do not pay any better than the manual labourers.
“The law prohibits the practice whereby female employees are paid less than their male counterparts performing the same work,” says the study.
However, the study notes that actually, the main challenge for most workers is decent wages rather than equal pay.
“There is yet to be established a formula of determining what is fair remuneration,” it says.
The study adds: “Some organisations advocating for the use of the contentious breadbasket methodology while others look to strengthening of labour unions and negotiations through use of a wage ladder as a more appropriate method of arriving at improved wages.”
Last year, Kenya recorded 39.1 per cent unemployment rate, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
Latest statistics continue to reflect a shockingly high youth unemployment rate due to harsh economic environment, which gives Kenya the highest unemployment rate in East Africa.
Until that situation changes, many women will struggle and put up with the harsh conditions in farms rather than lose jobs.
The KHRC study says 55 per cent of households in flower farms are headed by women, who have an average four children each.
“This is why I have to hide my pregnancy,” says Mary.