David Musyoka works in a flower farm in the lakeside town of Naivasha, the hub of Kenya’s booming flower industry about 80 kilometres north of Nairobi.
While the country’s position as one of the world’s biggest exporters of cut flowers earns Kenya billions of dollars in export revenues, Musyoka says he and his colleagues barely earn enough to survive.
"We cannot afford to feed our families despite all this hustle in the flower farms,” Musyoka tells Equal Times. “Most of us here are casual labourers. We are paid about $70 a month depending on our skills.”
The 24-year-old is amongst thousands of flower workers across the country who endure low pay and poor working conditions because there are no other options. Despite contributing significantly to the growth of the sector, workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals, work long hours, and female workers sometimes face sexual harassment.
According to the Kenya Flower Council, the sector employs an estimated 500,000 people both direct and indirectly, contributing 1.2 per cent to the country’s GDP in 2015.
Statistics from Horticulture Crop Directorate (HCD) indicate that the floriculture sector exported 122,825 tons of cut flowers in 2015, earning the country 62.9 billion Kenyan shillings (US$620 million). It commands a 38 per cent market share in the EU, and is the fourth biggest exporter of cut flowers in the world after The Netherlands, Colombia and Ecuador.
Industry representatives contend that cases of underpayment and poor working conditions are isolated.
"We pay our workers decently and in line with labour laws," said Charity Opon, human resource manager at Bigot flower company, which received Fairtrade Foundation certification in 2008.
"Most of the flower firms are members of Kenya Flower Council, which subscribe to international labour laws,” Opon told Equal Times.
She also noted that most flower producers subscribe to the Flower and Ornamental Sustainability Standards (FOSS), which aims to ensure that flower companies adhere to good agricultural practices, human resource management, worker welfare and safety, environmental protection and conservation.
“If there are cases of low wages in some flower firms, these are isolated cases and should be addressed,” said Opon.
Unions to industry: walk the talk
Over the years, trade unions have been vocal in demanding improvements in the social and economic conditions of workers, especially in the agricultural and industrial sectors. However, flower companies have been accused of failing to follow through on collective bargaining agreements.
“We still have huge wage discrepancies among workers in these flower firms. The firms have failed to improve the workers’ conditions despite registering profits,” said Francis Atwoli, secretary general, Central Organization of Trade Union (COTU).
Atwoli noted that despite Collective Bargaining Agreements (CBA) signed with flower companies, they are yet to implement them. “Apart from the salary increment, the CBA seeks to improve workers’ conditions,” he said.
The secretary general said the union reached agreement for a 25 per cent pay raise for at least 60,000 flower workers, in an accord signed between the Agricultural Employers Association and COTU. But he said some paychecks still don’t reflect that.
“I don’t see why some flower firms are not implementing these agreements yet. They are making good money from exports,” he said.
EU trade complications
As workers decry low wages, players in the industry are grappling with new challenges that threaten the future of Kenya’s flower farms. Delays in signing an economic partnership agreement with the EU and Britain’s plans to exit the European Union are posing major challenges to the industry’s growth.
“Brexit could see the country re-negotiate new bilateral trade policies that could further complicate Kenya’s cut flower access to Britain’s market,” said Jane Ngige, chief executive officer of the Kenya Flower Council.
Over the past few years, anxiety has also gripped the flower sector over the delayed signing of an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union. The country’s efforts to sign the agreement have been delayed by East Africa Community member states who are unhappy with crucial elements of the deal.
Experts fear that failure to sign the EPA would see the country’s cut flower exports go from being tariff-free within the EU to being slapped with an 8 per cent duty. Kenya’s main markets include Holland, the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland.
"If we don’t move with speed and sign the economic partnership agreement, we risk being slapped a higher tax," warned Ngige.