In Kenya, Workers in the Tea and Flower Industries Find Strength in Solidarity

Bella Rose, Red Calypso, Sunny Sher, Wild Thing, Ria, and Inca are all grown here in Kenya--roses with enticing names that give little indication about how they are grown or how the workers are treated.
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This is a two-part series of our three day visit with the Solidarity Center in Kenya to meet with workers and look at the tea and flower industries.

Lake Naivasha is known as a beautiful place to see wildlife, including thousands of pink flamingos. But just off the main road to the Naivasha national park, are hectares and hectares of greenhouses as far as the eye can see. They're not growing food inside the greenhouses--although Kenya, like other parts of Africa, is experiencing food shortages, malnutrition, and hunger because of prolonged drought--but flowers. The flower factory we visited -- the Sher Karuturi plant -- produces up to one million roses a day, which are sold at auction in Dubai and Holland and eventually make their way to the European Union and the United States.

Bella Rose, Red Calypso, Sunny Sher, Wild Thing, Ria, and Inca are all grown here--roses with enticing names that give little indication about how they are grown or how the workers are treated.

The week before we arrived, four women, according to Peter Otiend Ombude, the branch secertary for the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU), were hospitalized for chemical exposure. Apparently they were sent into the 35 degree Celsius greenhouses too soon after chemicals, mainly pesticides, were applied to the flowers. But for the most part, we're told, the conditions are better at this farm than some of the other farms--workers are provided a stipend for housing, there's a school located on site, and the salaries are higher than what employees of other farms make (on average $6200 Kenyan Shillings per month compared to $5000).

"The reason why conditions are better off is because of our union," said shop steward and mechanic at the plant, Ferdinand Jumo. The KPWU is currently in contract negotiations to negotiate higher wages, keep school costs down, and improve safety equipment. The Solidarity Center is working on helping them grow through ranks, as they've lost density in the industry due to heavy intimidation and pressure campaigns to keep workers from forming unions. In fact, ten additional flower factories abide by the collective bargaining agreement anyways just to keep workers from organizing.

But the union, with help from the Solidarity Center continues to make changes. "One of the most important things we've done is fight against gender discrimination," says union flower picker Samson Ouuda. "We've fought differences in wages, and won new policies to stop sexual harassment." An important win since many of the people working in the flower industry are young women.

We spent two days meeting with tea workers and their union in Kerecho and Naidu, Kenya -- working for multi-national tea manufacturers Unilever and Findley. As we drove through the tea region, it was like a never-ending labyrinth or a giant green maze of plants.

When we got to the union office in Kerecho, Kenya, union officials were elated to see the staff of the Solidarity Center. Over the last couple of months, more than 6,000 tea workers joined the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU). To help them win more members--and continue to grow--the Solidarity Center provides resources to hire organizers, conduct trainings, and offer communications and transportation support, according to KPAWU branch secretary Joshua Owuor Maywen.

The union, despite having more than 200,000 members in the agriculture sector and representing some of the most vulnerable workers, has still lost density over the last two decades. During this time, companies are trying whatever they can to cut costs, including implementing child labor, mechanizing the plucking industry--according to one of the workers: "the machines pluck everything including snakes and spiders, while the tea pluckers pluck tea"--and hiring casuals or "temporary" workers at lower wages and reduced benefits.

The union is actively fighting against child labor--they're playing a role in the implementation of international labor standards required under the Fair Trade rules, including monitoring of union plants. The trickiest part is that they are losing union density in the industry - with new plants and factories popping up outside of the main tea areas to provide stiff competition for the Kenyan tea market by undercutting costs using child labor and low wages.

Stay tuned for more stories of workers struggles as we visit Solidarity Centers all over Africa.

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