By Merab Ingabire
Valentine’s day is here, most of us must be thinking about Roses. Maybe we are even expecting some from our loved ones but do we ever pause to ask how these flowers are produced?
Majority of the flowers sold in Europe can be traced back to the Netherlands, which serves as the predominant trade hub across Europe, and Denmark represents one of the recipient countries.
Commercial flower farms were established in the early 1990s in Uganda and the industry has witnessed an enormous growth in the past decades. Following the establishment of commercial flower farms, there have been numerous examples of severe environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, in particular along the shoreline of Lake Victoria, as the majority of flower farms are based in Wakiso District due to its strategic location near Lake Victoria and Entebbe International Airport.
The fumes and harmful chemicals and pesticides that affect workers in the farms also contaminate the water and soil, which impacts the health and livelihood of surrounding communities.
The floriculture industry has produced approximately 13,600 direct jobs, but only one third of the workers have a permanent contract with severe implications for the working conditions; Workers are exploited and forced to work under inhumane conditions with a limited number of days off and a monthly salary as low as 95,000/- (which is about USD 26).
The poor working conditions are reinforced by employers’ unwillingness to prioritize labor rights and the health of their employees as well as by weak union engagement among the workers.
Only 14 percent of the industry’s workers are members of a union, which is partly due to workers’ fear of losing their jobs and livelihood.
In 2017 the Uganda Horticulture Industrial Service Providers and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU) was successful in ensuring a 10 percent wage increase for flower workers but numerous farms refused to implement the agreement despite the fact that it had been signed.
In general, the main challenge faced by UHISPAWU is to retain a strong voice and be effective when strategizing in order to advocate for improvements in working conditions and access to healthcare.
Flower farms are the police, the prosecutor, the judge and prison warden in their own operations. Some farms have their own clinics where sick workers are forced to go. This most likely is to hide from the outside world the work related illnesses, injuries, and deaths as a result of exposure to dangerous chemicals with no protective gear, long working hours in the cold rooms, and other dangers of the workplace.
The farms probably fear that if workers go to the independent hospitals or clinics of their choice, there is a high likelihood that the world will know what is happening at their place of work.
The green houses are a real health hazard, especially for women workers who are sometimes denied maternity leave, contrary to the established national and international legislations on occupational health and safety in flower production.
Workplace sufferings include but are not limited to miscarriage, Asthma, Cancer, Pneumonia, impotence in men, frequent back pain and Tuberculosis. These flower farms operate without proper oversight from government health or labour inspectors, to oversee their working and health conditions.
They operate in disregard to Occupational Safety and Healthy Act, and the 2012 Uganda Code of Practice for the horticultural sector.
In 2018, with help from Solidarity Uganda, flower farm workers initiated a campaign which they called #HealthFirstFlowersSecond with a mission to promote labor and health rights in floriculture industry in Uganda.
The aim was to expose the health rights violations at the flower farms and mobilise and capacitate workers to able to demand for better and healthier working conditions and to also participate in organized labor. Several stories of the victims of health rights violations were documented and the workers embarked on the struggle to get justice for those harmed during work.
Under this campaign, flower farm workers pressured some flower farms into improving their working conditions by providing protective gear and gloves for the flower workers. They also managed to secure a meeting at the Ministry of Labor and social development to discuss the issues pertaining the workers. Unfortunately, at this meeting, some individuals were chased out due to what was described as inappropriate dressing.
Some workers however managed to stay and at this meeting were promised by the ministry that it would visit the flower farms and they would consider ‘looking’ into their matters. Until now there is nothing significant the ministry has done yet the flower farms continue to operate with the same kind of impunity.
Now, on this Valentine’s Day, one can only think of the dreadful conditions that several workers go through at these flower farms.
If those involved in the production of these beautiful flowers are not dignified by granting them safe and healthy working environments, we should feel guilty for happily supporting businesses/ farms that produce or supply them on the market.
Ignoring their plight even when some of them remain silent for fear of losing their jobs is just not fair. This is more reason why standing in solidarity with them now is very important. Their voices have to be amplified by those that are in better positions to be heard. If we do not support their struggle by boycotting the flower business or pressuring the government to do what it ought to do, we are indirectly or even directly perpetuating this exploitation and inhumane conditions that go on in the closed gates and fences of flower farms.
Maybe you can opt for bush flowers this Valentine’s day instead of supporting the flower businesses or you could send the roses with dripping blood to that corrupt official like one of my friends is doing. The choice is yours.
Social activist and Head of Media and Communications at Solidarity Uganda