The shores of Lake Naivasha are reminiscent of Almeria. Not because of the landscape – it is one of the most humid areas of Kenya – but because of the many greenhouses along the shore. There aren’t any strawberries or tomatoes in the greenhouses, but roses, carnations and irises abound. Kenya is the fourth largest flower exporter in the world. Seventy percent of its production is concentrated around this lake that is 90 kilometres northeast of the capital, Nairobi.
While zebras and giraffes graze around the plantations, the workers’ rights are violated inside. The objective: obtain more profits. Numerous reports from various international organisations have condemned the situation. The most recent, which this newspaper had access to, is from March 2013 and is signed by the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of the Nakuru Diocese, an organisation for the defence of Human Rights.
Employers supervise the environment and the employees. There are no fines for producers that contaminate the lake or endanger the health of the individuals who spend the entire day hunched over the flowers, breathing in fertiliser and pesticides. Trade unionism is punished with dismissal or contracts are not renewed. This is the situation that was verified by a team of journalists thanks to a collaboration between El Mundo and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, despite the fact that the grounds’ security workers prevented camera use in and around the greenhouses.
Working until twilight
The sun frames the workday. At dawn the workers begin to make their way toward the greenhouses. Many walk several kilometres; the lucky ones travel by bus or matatu, a mini-bus that carries dozens of passengers. The workday ends at dusk. For twelve hours of work, they make less than 40 Kenyan shillings, roughly 0.33 euros a day. In Spain, the price of a bouquet of Kenyan roses at a florist costs around 30 euros.
The majority of the workers live in areas and shantytowns near the plantations. Some of the neighbourhoods are built by the company. In exchange, they deduct rent and utilities from the employees’ salaries, according to Silas Mwiti, a freelance journalist that covers the Naivasha region. It’s common to see livestock and small vegetable gardens used to supplement a family’s income.
All of the days are the same: on the equator, the sun’s hours don’t vary. This phenomenon, combined with the humidity of the lake and the equatorial temperatures, increases the efficiency of plant growth. The only changes are in the ownership of the plantations.
Historically, Kenya’s flower business has been in the hands of Dutch business owners that are nevertheless selling their companies to new investors. In particular, this involves rich Indian residents that arrived with the British colonists and remained in the country after independence. They represent a powerful minority that also controls key businesses like banks and supermarkets.
The workers’ neighbourhood, without electricity
Sher Karuturi Ltd, the largest flower producer in Kenya, is now Indian-owned. The company exports one and a half million roses to Europe every day, according to its website, but the neighbourhood constructed for its workers has no electricity as a result of a default on payments: Sher Karuturi alleges it has financial problems that contrast with the millions in profits it claims to earn annually from the sale of flowers. The hospital, paid by the company and which provided services to the workers, is no longer operating because of the lack of electricity.
Trade unionist Issa Werukha Wafulla welcomes us in a modest grill in Naivasha. It is a precarious shack where they serve simple dishes, like nyama choma (roast beef) and ugali (a compact grain similar to couscous). Wafulla is a former flower picker who now works for the trade union Kenya Plantations and Agriculture Workers Union (KPAWU) that acted as the agriculture section of the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU), Kenya’s largest trade union.
He is in Naivasha to meet with the owners of Sher Karuturi. He wants to try to bring electricity back to the neighbourhood and the workers. His attempt is in vain: the owners won’t even let him enter the plantation and they break off any type of negotiation. “Its reopening isn’t expected in the short-term. This is going to go on for some time yet”, he says with an air of resignation. What does the labour union plan to do? Wafulla says nothing in response.
Karuturi Hospital was constructed by the former Dutch proprietors. Despite providing services at highly reduced rates, their practices were of dubious legality. John Ojimbi, one of the authors of the Human Rights report and a member of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, reports, “when a labourer gets sick, the health centre doesn’t provide him or her with the medical report; it is sent to the company”.
Structure would be fundamental in an environment that lacks the appropriate material to work in plantations full of fertilisers and pesticides. The first symptoms are dizziness and skin diseases, but the workers, Ojimbi reports, don’t have access to basic palliative treatment.
As they aren’t edible, the flowers can avoid any sort of regulatory pesticide supervision for fruits and vegetables. The flowers need to be attractive. Otherwise, they lose all their market value. The former Dutch owners treated them and hid the evidence. “Now with the Indians we don’t even have the hospital”, Issa Wafulla complains bitterly.
Unpunished sexual assaults
According to the report “Bitter Blossom” of the English NGO War on Want, 75% of the plantation labourers are women. The same report states that, “sexual harassment at the plantations is very common, due in part to the labour conditions that tend to endanger women’s safety”. Working at a greenhouse is to work in a very open and solitary environment, since the protective helmet and noise of the wind hitting the plastic have an auditory isolation effect.
The Human Rights report of the diocese of Nakuru also decried these sex abuse cases and pointed out incidents in which the overseers asked for sexual favours from potential female labourers in exchange for a job. Naivasha has no organisation where these attacks can be reported.
“Thanks to every rose, a Kenyan child can eat”
Trade unionist Issa Werukha Wafulla talks about the flower sector’s goals in Kenya and how more and more it has had an increased impact on the international market. He focuses on the economy and avoids the human rights accusations made by NGOs and activists. At many points during the conversation he sounds as though he belongs to an employers’ organisation rather than a labour union.
“Don’t say that for every rose, a Kenyan child dies; say that thanks to every rose, a child can eat”, he repeats on several occasions. Wafulla is terrified of a possible international boycott. The workers of Naivasha, he claims, need flowers to sell in order to continue to survive. And every day they cultivate the bitter fragrance of Kenyan roses.
This article was also published on elmundo.es
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