Buying flowers can be a great way to express love and friendship, or to simply brighten up a living room. However, what people don’t realise is that some flowers hide a dark secret.
Kenya’s ideal tropical climatic conditions make it favourable for growing flowers. The country has a long history of growing horticultural crops for both domestic and export markets, which significantly contributes to the country’s economy. In total, 95% of Kenyan-grown flowers leave for international markets, and the EU and the UK are the main export markets.
The flower sector provides direct employment opportunities to about 150,000 people, the majority of whom are women. Indirectly, the industry supports over two million livelihoods.
However, through Workers’ Rights Watch’s work in the flower-cut sector, we have identified cases of workers being exploited in the industry. It’s commonplace for people to be forced to work under threats, retaliation, intimidation and fear of losing their jobs.
Workers are given very high targets, which they are unable to meet despite working more than 12- or 14-hour shifts. Having failed to meet these targets, female workers are forced to finish the target the next day without pay or offer a bribe or sexual favours to a supervisor to retain their jobs. Workers have no room to refuse these requests given their dependence on the income provided by their jobs.
Worker conditions are deplorable, disregarding gender-based needs in the workplace. For example, there is no time allowance to breastfeed. Women are not provided with transportation options, despite living far from the farms. Some of them opt not to go at all or have to leave their children in hazardous day and night care centres.
Tougher regulation: critical to protect workers, communities and the environment
There are two main changes that we are calling for to improve the lives of women across the flower industry – and beyond – in Kenya.
1. Human rights and environmental due diligence legislation
Workers’ Rights Watch, together with Anti-Slavery International and other global partners, have been calling on the EU and several governments around the world to introduce strong legislation to protect people and planet.
In February 2022, we welcomed the European Commission’s publication of a proposal for mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation to greater protect workers from exploitation.
But current loopholes are limiting the upcoming law’s potential impact on the lives of workers and communities around the world. We are particularly concerned to see weaknesses in the proposal around the areas of:
- Meaningful and credible engagement with affected and potentially affected workers and communities. The proposal should pay special attention to gender-specific needs and other groups in vulnerable situation. For women, poor working conditions are commonplace, ranging from: long working hours, poor pay, inadequate maternity protection and exposure to gender-based violence such as sexual harassment.
- The due diligence requirements across the supply chain should not be limited to only ‘established’ business relationships. In the EU, Kenya’s market share for rose cut flowers is estimated at 38%. Approximately, 50% of exported flowers are sold through Dutch Auctions. The non-established nature of transactions between auctioneers and EU retailers could leave half of the Kenyan flower sector out of the scope of the legislation. This would mean that workers in Kenya would not benefit.
- The proposal strongly relies on ‘third-party verification’, also understood as audits and certifications, through which companies could evade their responsibility when negative impacts occur. The inadequacies of audits and certifications to protect people from forced labour have been widely reported, where Kenya’s flower sector is not an exception. Such schemes have failed to deliver tangible results to workers.
2. Import controls
When it comes to addressing forced labour, Workers’ Rights Watch recognises the need for multiple policies and laws that complement and reinforce each other.
WRW therefore also welcome the EU’s commitment to introduce a forced labour instrument which could be used to ban specific Kenyan suppliers from exporting flowers to the European market, in those instances where flowers have been harvested with the use of forced labour. We want to see Kenyan flowers thriving in global markets, but only those picked in farms that respect the rights of workers.
The EU and other governments, including the UK, should look at models in countries such as Canada and the US. Crucially, governments should also focus on the creation of remedy-centred proposals. Listening to civil society, trade unions and workers is key to ensure the upcoming proposal is effective and responds to the needs of workers across global supply chains.
If we want to buy exploitation-free flowers from Kenya, and elsewhere, we need to make sure governments introduce legislation that will drive companies’ respect for people and the planet.
Workers’ Rights Watch is an independent, non-profit, civil society organisation founded in 2009. They exist primarily to promote healthy worker environments within Kenya’s horticulture and other businesses. Their work is based around four thematic areas namely: responsible governments, responsible businesses, responsible organisations, and responsible citizenship.
They have undertaken a number of initiatives promoting participatory governance and democracy within the cut flower sector to ensure that women workers are free from all sorts of violations.