Kenya: Complaints by workers

The Nation (Kenya)

Kenya's flower export industry is blooming, but there could be a worm gnawing it away at the core.

In the last four years, earnings from flower exports have been growing by leaps and bounds. But as some of the exporters smile all the way to the banks, many of their workers are weeping all the way to the hospitals. Some have been forced into early retirement prompted by ill health resulting from handling unsafe chemicals.

Many flower farm labourers have complained that their working conditions are far from rosy.

To see this for oneself, one has to take a trip to Karagita area in Naivasha, one of the top producers of cut flowers in Kenya.

From a distance, Karagita is a cultural melting point where Dinkas from the Sudan are as much at home as Kenyans from every corner of the country.

More than 50, 000 flower farm labourers live in the area with their families. Most live in the sprawling slums not far from the Moi South Road.

And when they wake up in the morning, the first thing they see are the more than a dozen flower farms and the five ever-busy private airstrips that dot the area, in other words, a picture of elegance.

However, the half blind men, the hairless women and the many others with scars on their faces, hands and other parts of the body do not share in the elation of waking up to another new day.

Their lives have been scarred by the chemicals they have had to handle to earn a living. And there is not too much of that either. An average worker earns about Sh140 a day for six days a week, bringing his salary to about Sh3,640.

Compare that to the Sh7.8 billion that the horticulture sector earned in 2002. Or the Sh13.2 billion earned in 2003 which shot up to Sh18.5 billion last year.

Not far from the labourers dwellings is a clinic set up for them. One of the doctors there says most the cases he encounters range from chronic bronchitis, breathing problems, severe headaches, loss of hair and acute chest pains - maladies he attributes to overexposure to dangerous substances.

It is true that Kenya is the leading exporter of flowers to Europe, commanding 25 per cent of total sales. It beats Israel and Colombia which are second and third respectively. The figures speak for themselves. And it is no wonder that every year, at least extra 200 hectares of land are put under flower farms - arguably the fastest expansion rate in the world.

The horticulture industry has overtaken tea export and tourism to emerge as Kenya's top foreign exchange earner.

But for some people, the human cost of this phenomenal growth could be unsettling. Allegations of exploitation of workers and a litany of other ills are threatening to mar an otherwise enviable success story.

Some of the workers in Naivasha, for instance, have complained about sexual harassment, low wages, questionable promotions, dangerous working conditions, intimidation and exploitation.

None belongs to a union and so they do not have a voice to speak for them when the flower owners meet under the auspices of the Fresh Produce Exporters of Kenya Association, a lobby group that caters for the interests of exporters.

A manager at Homegrown Flowers, one of the largest flower farms in Naivasha, which sits on more than 10,000 hectares, says that vigorous audits and inspection exercises conducted by independent experts mainly from Europe have found out that the flower farms comply with the EU's hygiene rules and the European Good Agricultural Practices.

So what is one to make of the case of 28-year-old Wycliffe Wekesa who works in a nearby flower farm?

He says: "The only thing I remember is that I was mixing chemicals and acids in readiness for the spraying. After I passed out I woke up at the Naivasha Sub-district Hospital two days later." When he became unconscious, he had a smooth face. When he came to, he had a big scar.

Mr Peter Opiyo, the chief chemist and the officer in charge of registering and approving pesticides at the Pest Control Products Board headquarters, has an hypothesis on what could have happened.

"You can only add acid to the water - and just a small dose of acid at a time - and not the other way round. You add water into the acid and it blows to your face with scorching effects. This principally is a basic rule and a must-observe to all acid and chemical users."

Saying the scar was an acid burn, Mr Opiyo said that Mr Wekesa was either insufficiently trained to handle pesticides or was not wearing protective gear as required by the Pest Control Act, or both.

According to him, the board does not train individual pesticide users. That job is left to private institutions like the Hurlingham-based Pesticide and Agricultural Resource.

But a supervisor in one of the farms, who only gave his name as Julius, claims that almost all the workers in the fumigation department are trained on the job while some learn through swim-or-sink method. According to him, Mr Wekesa's is not an isolated case.

While most of the more serious injuries like blindness as a result of mishandling chemicals are promptly compensated through a "golden handshake" package, most of the other claims go uncompensated.

Most of the workers interviewed said they could not raise a finger against the malpractices because they cannot afford to hire lawyers and they needed the money they were earning, insufficient as it is.

According to them, the overtime pay package, which they used to be paid used to come in handy. But it was scrapped at the beginning of the year when the farm owners held a meeting and unanimously resolved to scrap it. And when one goes on leave, one is not paid either.

One worker, who gave his name only as Omari put it thus: "The best thing in the circumstances is to keep quiet and pray to God because the 50-plus owners of the Naivasha horticulture farms have a mechanism where you can easily be blacklisted in all the farms". His one eye, though wide open, is blind as a result of exposure to dangerous chemicals. But he says his job is more important to him than a legal suit he cannot afford.

But how come there are lethal chemicals in the farms?

A storekeeper in one of the leading farms has the answer. During his four years at the stores, he says, he has often handled unlabelled chemicals. When inspectors from the Pest Control Products Board come checking, he claims, workers are directed to hide the unlabelled bottles in a manager's house.

Mr Opiyo, who is also a head inspector at the board, says he could not rule out the possibility that the unlabelled chemicals could be banned substances.

"The distances from the gates of the expansive farms to the offices are long and the time taken to get there is enough for dishonest farmers to carry out that kind of mischief," he avers.

His boss, Mr Samuel Gachanja, acknowledges that workers could be too scared to inform the board about what is going on behind the board's back. After all, they want to keep their jobs.

So the question still remains: Who will come to the assistance of the affected workers?