The violations and abuse of human rights of women workers in flower farms in Kenya and other African countries took center stage at the ongoing Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York.
Participants and women workers shared stories of having to work overtime without pay, especially during peak season that happens around the Valentine’s Day. Sexual harassment that is making some women to flee from the sector and ignorance among women workers about policies on sexual harassment and how to seek justice were highlighted as problems making life difficult for women workers. So is the certification process that heavily focuses on the business attributes and not on the rights of workers.
Although some progress has been made, the women rights advocates lamented that it has been painfully slow.
Mary Kambo from the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) said: “Fortunately, a robust framework in Kenya exists through the labor laws and key provisions in the constitution. But it is not enough to have laws on paper. There is a need to go to the next level and look at the more imperative issue of implementation.”
The focus on women and flower farms is informed by sobering statistics. It is estimated that 70 per cent of the workforce in horticulture sector in East Africa are women. Yet they are underrepresented in decision making positions.
The organization and gender advocates speaking at the United Nations CSW63 meeting are part of the Women@Work Campaign, which is pushing for the realization of rights of women working in horticulture farms. Hivos Program Manager Virginia Munyua says the Women@Work Campaign is East Africa’s “largest structured dialogue and advocacy platform on women’s labor rights.”
The campaign event, she added, sought to “highlight the lived experiences of women workers in flower farms as a way of amplifying their voices during this global dialogue platform.”
Munyua said they are constantly engaging players in the horticulture sector to help address the rights of women workers working in close collaboration with sector players. They are doing this by engaging governments – at national, regional and international levels; business players in the sector; and strengthening the capacities of women workers to engage and demand for better work conditions, structures and systems.
At the UN meeting, thousands of delegates from across the world are geared towards building momentum around issues of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
During discussions at the Women@Work side event, participants questioned the role of citizens in improving the safety of women in the horticultural farms.
The Constitution of Kenya provides that women and men have the right to work in an environment where they are treated with respect, dignity and fairness. They also should have equal pay and equal opportunities to ascend the career radar.
But for these provisions to be implemented, experts within the Women@Work Campaign have emphasized that an engendered leadership is critical in creating a safe and healthy work environment free from all forms of gender discrimination.
The good news is that there is hope. Measures are being put in place to improve the safety of women and to protect their dignity. The Model Sexual Harassment Policy for flower farms that was launched in 2016 by the Women@Work Campaign is one such progressive measure. This policy has contributed immensely towards prevention of sexual harassment.
According to the policy, “sexual harassment in the workplace, often, takes the form of promises of preferential or beneficial treatment of a worker by a superior in exchange for sex.”
But the drawback is that very few women workers in the flower farms are aware of it, and hence are not using it to demand for justice or protection.
Nonetheless, legal experts were emphatic that this sector wide policy on sexual harassment has contributed immensely towards wading off potential perpetrators.