GLOOM IN THE BLOOM

How one woman fights to bring Valentines into flower farms

Valentines is the most important period in flower farms, but it is also the period rights of workers are most abused, says Eunice Waweru

In Summary

•Several recent studies that show that 65 and 75 percent of workers in Kenyan flower farms are female.

•While women in those farms are now safer, Eunice says more still needs to be done, especially in the remaining farms. 

Eunice Waweru, the founder of Workers Right Watch, wishes women working in flower farms can enjoy the Valentine's Day
Eunice Waweru, the founder of Workers Right Watch, wishes women working in flower farms can enjoy the Valentine's Day
Image: JOHN MUCHANGI

Since she lost her husband in 2016, Eunice Waweru has not gone out on a Valentine’s Date.

Yet February 14 is one of most important dates on her calendar every year.

Usually, she is to be found in her Kiambu office, where she coordinates the activities of Workers' Rights Watch, a non-profit she founded in 2009.

But today she has travelled to Naivasha, where she is speaking to a group of young women, majority 20 to 27 years, whose gloomy faces glow when she begins to speak to them.

They are talking about sex.

“You see, this is the time, these young women are most vulnerable,” says Eunice, who speaks fast, in a haranguing but cheeky parlance.

“Nani ashawahi teremsha bendera by force?” She asks them, to mean, "who has ever been coerced into sex at work?"

The women work in Naivasha's sprawling flower farms. They prepare the farms in October every year, plant the flowers ahead of the February boom time, but never enjoy the Valentines Day.

Several recent studies that show that 65 and 75 per cent of workers in Kenyan flower farms are female.

Valentines Day is the fulcrum of this sector. It is so important that some farms export as much as 70 per cent of their annual production around February.

“This is also the period workers are most vulnerable,” says Eunice. Women seeking jobs are often sexually harassed by managers, as well as those who desire lighter duties when farms move into peak production ahead of the Valentines season.

“Valentines is the most difficult period for my girls as they work themselves out to produce flowers for the world,” she says. “They also leave work very late during peak production, sometimes at midnight every day.”

VALENTINES DAY

“Right now, it’s a dark period in many farms when they are overworked and sexual harassment increases.”

Nearly 40 percent of all flowers imported into the European Union come from Kenya.

The country is now the world’s third or fourth biggest exporter of cut flowers, according to the Kenya Flower Council.

The main cut flowers grown here are roses, carnations, alstroemeria, gypsophila, lilies, and a range of other summer flowers.

KFC attributes Kenya’s flower power to the country's sunny climate, which enables high-quality blossoms to be grown year-round.

Kenya also has excellent air transport links to Europe.

The 2019 Economic Survey, produced by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, says cut flowers earned Kenya Sh113 billion in foreign exchange in 2018.

Waweru says her desire is to make the Valentine's as fulfilling for women who produce flowers, as it is for lovers who buy the flowers.

“Right now, it’s a dark period in many farms when they are overworked and sexual harassment increases.”

In 2012, the Kenya Human Rights Commission interviewed workers in 15 farms in Naivasha, Thika and Athi River.

KHRC found only less than half of the farms were free of sexual harassment.

“Sixty seven per cent of respondents reported sanctions against sexual harassment are not adequate to deter the vice,” the study, Wilting in Bloom, says.

It further notes that women’s concerns go beyond sexual harassment.

“The female workers reported high incidences of divorce, high stress levels and lack of childcare support as the negative spin off effects of the gender based discrimination (both labour and cultural) faced by women,” it reads.

A woman works in one of the flower farms in Naivasha recently.
A woman works in one of the flower farms in Naivasha recently.
Image: John Muchangi

Waweru says women in most workplaces get the short end of the stick, and flower farms are not different.

In 2013, her organisation Workers Rights Watch alongside select NGOs in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia conducted a baseline survey in 20 flower farms, which revealed that sexual harassment at farms was common, yet widely unacknowledged.

In 2015, these organisations and Dutch non-profit Hivos engaged eight flower farms in a pilot project to adopt a model sexual harassment policy that would then be scaled-up to the entire flower sector in Kenya.

The project was implemented between 2017 and 2019 in Kiambu, Kajiado, Nakuru and Laikipia counties.

The training involved sensitising the management, supervisors and the workers.

“Unajua mtu akikuambia uteremshe bendera ndio upate promotion ni hatia kali (are you aware its illegal for anyone to make sexual advances to you so they can give you promotion)?” She asks the workers.

Some shake their heads while the others shyly look at her.

“They are young, desperate women, and in this era of joblessness they can hold on to their jobs by all means.”
Eunice Waweru, Workers' Rights Watch

According to the 2012 KHRC study, the mean age of workers was 24.1 years, majority women.

In 2018, University of Nairobi sociologist Dr Joseph Kabiru published another study, ‘Emerging conditions of labour in the cut flower industry in Kenya’, in the International Journal of Education and Research.

This study – conducted in flower hubs of Naivasha, Thika and Nanyuki - showed the mean age in farms is now 32.4 years.

Only 25.98 per cent of workers are married were only while the rest are divorced, separated and widowed.

“The high percentage of workers who are single could be attributed to the fact that the industry mainly attracts young people in their early adulthood after attaining basic education,” the study says.

About 48 per cent and 36 per cent of the workers have attained secondary and primary education, respectively. Only 10.1 per cent do not have formal education.

One informant said most of the workers join the sector immediately after school because they failed to get good grades to join college, and had no money to further their education.

Waweru says this is a desperate group that is easy to take advantage of.

“Many of them do not know what constitutes sexual harassment,” she says. “They are young, desperate women, and in this era of joblessness they can hold on to their jobs by all means.”

“When we started piloting most farms lacked policies on sexual harassment, but some farms already had gender committees to deal with such issues,” she says.

But many of the gender committees were woefully inefficient. They were composed of general farm workers and were wobbly in cases that involved their bosses, and most cases did.

Waweru has more than 20 years as a human rights activist. She was in high school during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

She says after that conference, which was highly publicised in Kenya, there was a backlash on women’s rights movement in the country.

“After that meeting when you spoke your mind as a woman, you were told 'don't bring Beijing here, to sit on men'.”

This has worked against many young women. They were made to think speaking out your mind to protect yourself is trying to invade men’s space or trying to sit on men.

“But there is enough space for everyone. And today more men are fighting to ensure women also enjoy human rights,” she says.

Eunice Waweru, the director of Workers Rights Watch, in a past interview.
Eunice Waweru, the director of Workers Rights Watch, in a past interview.
Image: COURTESY

Waweru says while piloting the sexual harassment model policy, the gender committees were trained how to properly handle cases brought before them.

The project was was endorsed by the Kenya Flower Council and certification body Fairtrade International.

KFC and Fairtrade now require farms affiliated to them to comply with the policies.

The management of the farms are required to implement the workplace sexual harassment policies while the gender committees and committees formed by workers unions monitor the compliance.

“There has been tremendous progress, especially in farms that were piloted,” Eunice says.

"Women in those farms can now boldly speak out. The gender committees have recommended action against those who perpetrated sexual harassment and followed up to ensure that action is taken."

KFC and Fairtrade also updated their their accreditation matrix to reflect the issues raised during the pilot.

While women in those farms are now safer, Eunice says more still needs to be done, especially in the remaining farms.

"In time, I hope these women can all afford, not just the flowers they produce, but the joy that comes with this day."

More stories:

The plight of pregnant women in flower farms

I had to buy a belt worth Sh15,000 to tie around the spinal cord. This didn’t lessen my pain at work, says Kemunto

JOHN MUCHANGI
Science Editor

1,000 striking flower farm workers sent home

Union leader says they were ready to seek legal redress in courts,

GEORGE MURAGE
CORRESPONDENT

Concerted campaign helps women in Kenya’s flower industry get better deal

This Valentine’s Day florists are predicting sales of in the UK alone. But where do they all come from? Kenya is ...

By The Conversation