Jobs lost, pay cuts, as firms warn export earnings may drop by half
The Kenya cut flower industry has braced itself for a disaster since March 11 when the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus which causes COVID-19 a pandemic.

The country has been losing at least 50 of the 60 tonnes of flowers it exports daily.

Firms are exporting only 20 percent of the 60 tonnes of flowers they would normally export to markets abroad, Clement Tulezi, the Kenya Flower Council Chief Executive Officer said in a statement.

On March 23, 2020 the United Kingdom declared a total lockdown to contain the highly infectious COVID-19. As Europe became the epicenter of coronavirus recording more infections and deaths than even China, where the virus was first reported, the cut flower industry ship entered rough waters.

Kenya’s cargo flights have dwindled and more tough measures are expected. Within this context, the Kenya Flower Council fears that export earnings from flowers could drop by half, to just Ksh60 billion.

Against this backdrop, the situation of women working in floriculture that has gender experts on edge.

Speaking on a radio talk show at Radio Amani, Evelyn Wairimu from Haki Mashinani, an organisation that fights for better working conditions for women, went to great lengths to paint the profile of a woman working in the flower farms.

“General workers make hardly enough to meet pressing needs for food, shelter and clothing. Most women here are single mothers struggling daily to make ends meet,” she says. Many of these women cannot afford decent housing, a decent meal or even health care.

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No bed of roses

Beth Asenath Auma is one such woman.  Auma, who is among scores of women working in flower farms and who have received training from Haki Mashinani on the rights and obligations of flower farm workers, says the situation is dire.

By March 20, 2020 flower farms had sent home a staggering 30,000 workers. With flower farms now operating at only a 20 percent capacity, women will be the face of suffering in this trying times.

Statistics by Hivos East Africa emphasize that women account for 70 to 80 percent of labourers in flower farms. Like Auma, they are often unskilled manual workers, employed under casual terms.

Wairimu says that while it is important to clarify that the condition of workers in flower farms has significantly improved over the years, more work remains to be done.

“We live in Kijiji (slums) and we are told that coronavirus can be found in dirty places but where can we go? We have no drinking water let alone water and soap to wash our hands,” Auma says.

CIVID-19 has been rated as  the most dangerous health pandemic since the 1918 Spanish Flu which killed millions of people across the world.

The Spanish Flu, so named because the country’s press was among the first to report on it, lasted from January 1918 to December 1920 infecting at least 500 million people. This was about a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

It killed anywhere between 50 million and 100 million people. It is these harrowing memories that have everyone on edge as COVID-19 quickly spreads.

But the question on gender and health experts’ agenda is the extent to which vulnerable populations such as women working in flower farms could be cushioned from this viral onslaught.

Even as tens of thousands of flower farm workers remain at home, Auma is among the ‘fortunate’ few to hold on to her job. She knows all too well that every time she ventures outside her house, presents an opportunity to be exposed to the airborne, human to human infectious disease.

“But if I do not go to work, I will not be paid. But we also know that our days at this flower farm are numbered if this virus does not stop. There are murmurs everywhere and we are very worried that tomorrow there will be no job to wake up to,” she says.

Another worker, Karenna Wanjiru (not her real name), of Thika-based Simbi Roses is worried about the uncertain future.

To cope with the situation, flower farms have laid off seasonal and casual employees and sent the other workers on leave.

“About 80 percent of the employees have been send home. They have been asked to fill leave forms,” Ms. Wanjiru said.

Asked about how the management arrived at the people to let go and those to continue working, she said, “We go on leave in shifts, this being an emergency, the people whose leave was coming up in the next four months were asked to take an early leave.”

Those who have remained are working half day.  “We report to work at 8am and leave at 2pm. The workload is heavy on me as I have been left to manage a whole unit by myself, which is usually managed by five people,” says Wanjiru.

The pay of the mother of three has been cut by a half. As a result, she can barely afford much for her three children who are at home because schools have closed due to the pandemic.

In ordinary times, a general worker in the flower farm takes home less than Ksh10, 000 a month. A pay cut is a catastrophe for her.

Those who were sent on leave were not paid and their union has not been of much help. It workers to comply with the management and sign the leave forms. Union leaders gave the workers hope that they would be paid which has not happened.

The normal practice is for workers to be paid an advance salary for the month they are on leave.

Although a government directive encourages people to work  home,  those like Auma and Wanjiru, cannot work from home.

No measures have been put in place by the government and key players in cut flower industry to make life for women like them, easier.


This article was originally published in the Kenyan Woman Newspaper. Click here to read the original article

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