Flowers and Cents – profiting from improved working conditions

July 16, 2014

Over 120,000 tonnes of fresh cut flowers are exported every year to the European Union from Kenya alone!  The value of the flower industry stands at 396 million euros annually, and it is estimated that close to 90,000 Kenyans are directly employed in the sector, with over 80% of these being women.   Hivos’ Women@ Work campaign has been working in the East Africa region since the inception of the campaign in 2012. Approximately 65% of exported flowers are sold through the Dutch auctions.  With the important role played by both the auctions houses and Dutch-owned farms in Kenya, Hivos is keen to make itself an influential voice in a sector that bears equal importance to both countries.  Andrew Odete is the campaign’s Programme Officer, based in Nairobi, and he spoke to our East Africa editor Kevin Mwachiro.

KM: How has the Women@ Work (W@W) campaign evolved in the last year?

Andrew Odete: In the last year or so we have been creating structures and re-energising partnerships.  Currently we have 25 partners across the four countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia. We have been grappling with how best to draw the key partners, namely the producers/growers. Initially, there was a lot of acrimony between the growers on one hand and workers and civil society on the other hand. We realised while advocacy was beneficial with its watchdog carried out by civil society and trade unions, it did not go far enough in influencing the internal operations of the flower farms. So, we sought dialogue with the growers and we have found that they are willing to work with us, as was evidenced in the IFTEX roundtable, which by conservative standards was fairly successful.

We are therefore positioning the W@W campaign in an advantageous place, so as to tackle the issues that the cut flower sector is facing.

KM: What are these issues and have they changed?

AO:  These issues have somewhat evolved. Sexual harassment in Kenya has waned a bit; in some other countries, the workforce is re-awakening and taking on the aspect of sexual harassments, where this is still a problem.  There is the need for strong structures to be put in place within the workplace that can live beyond this campaign. We are seeing more structures in Kenya and Uganda than in the other countries, like the workers committees and gender committees, which also act as monitoring organs within the flower farms. We are also seeing the farms coming up with common policies such as sexual harassment policies and grievance mechanisms that can be sector wide.  We are now seeing trade organisations collaborating with civil society to come with broad policies!

KM: You recently hosted a roundtable meeting here in Nairobi with stakeholders in the industry, which has been described as successful.  Are the growers beginning to view Hivos and the work we are doing through the W@W campaign differently?

AO:  By all means, yes! The whole idea of IFTEX was to offer dialogue within the sector and the demand and supply actors in the cut flower industry.  There was a lot of candid conversation. We ourselves also realised that we need to put forward a business case for corporate social responsibility because at the end of the day these farms are still businesses.  In addition to this we also put onto the table issues which we felt were important, like sexual harassment, the living wage question and work-based conditions. These issues are now being addressed.

KM: What is your message now to the growers and civil society with the Kenyan cut flower sector?

AO: We’re telling the growers that all players have a stake in the industry. They had previously viewed civil society and workers representatives groups with a lot of suspicion, assuming that they wanted to sabotage the industry.  This couldn’t have been further from the truth.  To the civil society organisations, our message to them is that they need to understand all the angles;  the business concerns, the regulatory framework, the social  and environmental concerns, so that our case is stronger, cogent and persuasive to the to the growers. At the end of the day, we want to be able to come up with solutions that make sense.  Business sense included.

KM: Being a regional campaign, what is the impact of the campaign in the other East African countries?

AO: Kenya still remains the chief exporter of cut flowers out of the region into Europe, but in a few years’ time, Ethiopia is going to upstage Kenya. This is very interesting for us, because we need to understand why Ethiopia is positioned in this way.  We need to look at the dynamics that are taking place there.

In the other regional countries, the regulatory framework is a lot more lacking and the structures of accountability are much weaker than in Kenya.  More so in Ethiopia and Tanzania, where we also see weaker awareness  amongst stakeholders on matters of human rights and the culture of protecting human rights. So, Hivos is therefore trying to build a best practice bubble within Kenya and trying to use this in as many ways that we can in the region.