The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the extreme vulnerability of East Africa’s flower workers
With overseas demand for fresh-cut flowers plummeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of women in flower farms in Kenya and Ethiopia have lost their jobs and are at risk of being pushed into poverty, warned labour rights campaigners.
The coronavirus crisis, they add, has spotlighted long-standing problems in global supply chains, such as East Africa’s flower industry which employs mostly female workers growing bouquets of roses and carnations for western supermarkets.
“We’re already hearing reports of tens of thousands of workers who’ve been sent home on compulsory leave or that temporary contracts ended earlier,” said Anna Barker, Fairtrade Foundation’s senior supply chain manager for flowers.
“Flower workers don’t always earn a lot of money to have savings. We’re really concerned that they won’t have enough food on their table.”
Floriculture is a key economic pillar for Africa’s top flower exporters, Kenya and Ethiopia.The sector – which cultivates flowers for largely European markets such as the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Britain – generates over $1 billion annually and employs hundreds of thousands of people across the two east African nations.
In Kenya, flower exports are among the top foreign exchange earners, along with tourism and remittances.
While in Ethiopia, the sector earned $280 million in the last fiscal year, according to the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers Exports Association.
But lockdowns across many European countries, coupled with the cancellation of international flights, has led to flower exports in both nations plunging by up to 80%, forcing farm owners to trash tonnes of their high-quality blooms.
“Because of the lockdowns in our main markets, flowers are not seen as a necessity, but more of a luxury. The concentration has been on health and safety products, and food,” said Clement Tulezi, chief executive of the Kenya Flower Council.
“Cash flows have become an issue and we had to look at how to remain afloat. The first thing to look at was the workers because wages take up 45% of any flower farm operation.”
Around 10,000 casual workers have been laid off, and about 50% of permanent workers given compulsory annual leave, said Tulezi, adding this was done in agreement with workers’ unions.
In neighbouring Ethiopia, industry officials estimate about 50,000 workers could lose their jobs in the coming weeks.
“We’re trying our level best not to lay off many employees,” said Tewodros Zewdie, executive director of the Ethiopian Horticulture Producers Exports Association.
“Many companies are giving annual leave to the workers. We hope the situation will improve in the coming couple of months.”
Both governments have introduced measures to support the sector – from rescheduling of loan repayments to removing limits on the repatriation of foreign exchange earnings – but there have been few measures aimed directly at supporting workers.
Flower workers are getting increasingly anxious. In Ethiopia’s northern city of Bahir Dar, flower farm supervisor Tirusew Kerebet has been at home for almost three weeks after being forced to take annual leave by her company.
“We’re afraid because our livelihood depends on the farm. If the situation continues for a long time, the company may let us go for good, we’ll become jobless,” said Kerebet, 26, who earns 2,900 Ethiopian Birr ($88) monthly. “If there is no job, how can I raise my son?”
Labour rights campaigners said the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how those at the beginning of supply chains will often suffer the most when disaster hits.
Flower pickers often don’t have contracts and work as casual labourers so it is easy to fire them when demand is low. Both Ethiopia and Kenya lack robust social protection systems, which means that if workers lose their job, they have nothing to fall back on, add labour rights campaigners.