LITTLE HELP COMES FROM GOVERNMENT

Why workers cry for corporate responsibility in flower farms

Their concerns were raised at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

In Summary

The political interest in ownership or directorship of the horticultural business enterprises has contributed to failure of states in their duty to protect rights of their workers

Workers strike in a Naivasha flower farm in 2016.
Workers strike in a Naivasha flower farm in 2016.
Image: George Murage

If there is one thing that women working in flower farms would like to happen in their daily lives, is having their employers adhere to and practice corporate accountability.

It is the failure of ensuring this practice that has left many women to be violated with impunity by their companies and colleagues.

One of the reasons for this state of affairs in Kenya, like in other African countries, is governments are keen to protect the interests of investors than those of the workers, their own people.

They therefore either look the other side or prescribe less punitive sanctions when the farms fail to adhere to the dictates of corporate responsibility.

Workers too are fearful of demanding that the farms abide by Corporate Responsibility. Instead they suffer in silence. This is because the high unemployment and demand for jobs, though low paying, make them persevere.

The other reason why they fear speaking and why government does not come to their rescue is because many of these farms are owned by powerful people who also happen to be in government.

This political interest in ownership or directorship of the horticultural business enterprises has contributed to failure of states in their duty to protect rights and demand corporates to respect rights of their workers as dictated by United Nations Guiding Principles.

These concerns were raised at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) taking place in New York.

During one of the sessions organized by Hivos and its two partners under the [email protected] campaign – the Kenya Human Rights Commission and Uganda Women Lawyers Association titled: Strengthening Corporate Accountability and Decent Work for Women in Precarious Employment, participants decried the poor corporate accountability shown by Kenya’s horticultural farms.

This year’s CSW focused on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

A topic that is quite relevant for women working in the sectors that are considered precarious. The forum therefore presents a good opportunity for both state and non-state actors to reflect on the issues affecting women workers.

most workers are employed on contractual basis and thus do not belong to trade unions and cannot push for any Collective Bargaining Agreements"
Selvi Palani

According to Mary Kambo, a labour rights advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), women workers still have to grapple with challenges posed by affordable childcare, healthcare, education, maternity protection, pensions and safe transport. These challenges can be blamed on failed corporate accountability

Kambo said that most women in the flower sector, for instance, work in situations that are much less secure, have less bargaining power, and are paid incredibly low wages.

They are forced to meet unreasonable targets, and not paid overtime when they do so. These women workers, she added, in some instances are overexposed to chemicals, faced with rampant sexual harassment and mass exploitation.

“Most of these women have to work for long hours into the night. While transport is provided for free of charge, they are dropped far from their residential places, exposing them to sexual assault and rape,” she said.

At the workplace, Kambo observed that the situation is disheartening. “Some of these women have suffered spontaneous abortions while others can hardly conceive due to use of prohibited chemicals and non-observance of re-entry hours.”

She cited a research done by the KHRC which revealed inadequate maternity protection for the women in flower farms.

“Most of these women leave their babies in deplorable informal day care facilities. Our research findings indicate that children at the facilities are drugged to make them manageable and allowing care givers take in more children,” she added.

This situation, she said, had been exacerbated by the fact that most of these women cannot afford to hire house helps due to low pay. Even the breastfeeding breaks that women are allowed to take rarely benefit them due to structural barriers.

The participants in this side meeting observed that while the government was willing to regulate the sector, actual enforcement is limited.

Kambo gave the example of the Solai Dam tragedy which mainly affected women and children with majority of those who perished being women.

She said: “Hard questions abound on how the government has responded to this case. Compensation and basic justice are still lacking. The government actions seem overprotective of the investors as opposed to workers.”

A similar story is replayed in India. The plight of women working in the garment industry lays bare these glaring inequalities. According to Selvi Palani, a legal advisor to Women's Trade Unions and labour groups in Asia, women working in the garment industry hardly enjoy any form of social protection.

Palani, who has worked with marginalised communities especially the Dalit community, said that although the women account for 90 per cent of the workforce, they lack contracts and do not have any security of tenure.

“There are progressive laws but the challenge is their implementation and enforcement,” she explained during the panel discussion. She said that while the government reviews minimum wage every 5 years, this is not binding. There is minimum wage act but enforcement is lacking – and the process is derailed.

“Over the last 24 years, the revised salaries have not been implemented as majority of these employers have successfully moved to court to object the proposed increments.”

She said that most workers are employed on contractual basis and thus do not belong to trade unions and cannot push for any Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBAs).

Lydia Lubega of Fida Uganda said there is need to include gender perspectives in the draft Treaty on business and human rights.

She said the Treaty and protocol provides for a complaints mechanism at national levels, which enables actors to assess the impact of entities doing business.

“The treaty suggests a good enforcement ground for any one aggrieved and rides on local mechanism to push for justice. This will help bring complaints mechanism closer to those affected, hence easier to address the human rights abuse,” she added.

The only challenge it is an optional treaty, and a country can decide to or not to ratify it. Notwithstanding this challenge and with increased focus on private sector led growth in the Global South, the treaty could provide a good starting point to demand corporate accountability and best practices for promoting decent work for women.