While people buy flowers to celebrate special occasions or to merely liven up their home, most buyers do not think twice about the origins of the flowers or why they are so affordable.
Almost all the roses now sold in Europe come from Eastern Africa and most of them are produced — little surprise — by young women with little to no education who often work in tough conditions. Some of the problems these women face include low wages that range from $40 to $120 a month, sexual harassment and rape, exposure to pesticides, no or flexible contracts, unsafe commuting conditions and unpaid overtime.
In a world where people are becoming more aware of complications in food production and the deadly troubles plaguing the garment industry, the cut-flower business has been operating under the radar for a long time. But its problems are becoming more visible to the public.
“In the flower industry, you don’t have farms killing people directly, but for the most part the issues are the same” as in other outsourced industries, said Andrew Odete, the Kenya-based Eastern African coordinator for Hivos, an international development organization in the Netherlands. Like other charities in the country, it is partly financed by the government.
To improve working conditions in Africa, Hivos has started campaigning for fair-trade flowers in the Netherlands, one of the biggest flower markets in Europe.
Yvonne Gispen, a communications adviser for Hivos in the Netherlands, said in a Skype interview: “In the flower industry, the problems are more below the surface. (Since the interview, Gispen has moved to a new role in Hivos, which is based in The Hague. Jorrit Visser is now the communications officer in charge of the fair-trade flower issues at Hivos.)
Just because flowers look natural and eco-friendly, Gispen said, the public thinks they are produced in a similar environment. Yet when Gispen tells people facts about the industry’s realities, they are surprised. “It’s an eye-opener.”
Another aspect that has contributed to the conditions of the cut-flower industry going unnoticed is that many Europeans and Americans think that the flowers sold in their countries are still locally produced.
This has not been true in years: the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia won the price wars years ago.
“It’s an industry that has grown since the ’90s; it’s growing in leaps and bounds in Ethiopia,” Odete said.
Ethiopia is slated to become the world’s biggest producer of cut flowers soon, although current political unrest could slow that progress. “Ethiopia is taking over the global market share because of low production costs and wages,” Odete said.
Ethiopia’s flower business has been booming despite the country’s experiencing a historic drought over the past few years. Heavy government subsidies and low labor costs have been ameliorating the drought’s effects. (Ethiopia’s labor situation is so dire that it is also a large source of outmigration.)
The Netherlands is a major player in the flower trade: about 50 percent of the world’s production originates with Dutch companies, operating in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Roses are by far the most popular flower. In 2015, the Netherlands exported flowers and plants worth more than $6 billion.
Hivos recently started a campaign, “Power of the Fair Trade Flower,” to better inform consumers and to enable conscious-purchasing behavior favoring fair-trade products. It aims to raise awareness of the problems related to the industry and to increase transparency among retailers.
Not everyone is gung-ho about this activism.
“There were some grievances, especially from the Dutch entrepreneurs in Africa, who responded in quite a defensive manner to our campaign,” Gispen said, adding that the farmers often felt “wronged” by it.
Over time, however, Hivos’s work has gained credibility. “We’ve been around some time, we’ve proven we are not the enemy,” Gispen said.
A big part of Hivos’s work has been to get merchants in the Netherlands to be clear about where their flowers come from so that customers can make educated purchases. “We want to convince retailers there has to be transparency,” Gispen said.
Last year, Hivos published an online Fair Flowers Guide with points-of-sales of fair flowers. Dutch consumers can use the guide to find florists and supermarkets in their neighborhoods that carry fair products labeled as such.
The problem is that in the Netherlands, some 60 percent of flowers are sold by florists, who buy their stock from large auction houses.
“Through auction traders, there is a big loss of knowledge,” Gispen said. “Although a lot of florists do have fair flowers as a part of their offerings, in stores these flowers are not visible to consumers. In short, people can’t make a choice between fair flowers and not-fair flowers.”
The situation is similar in the United States, said Case Van Wingerden, a flower farmer in Southern California. His company, Westland Floral, is based in Carpinteria, a suburb of Santa Barbara.
When you go into a store in the US to buy flowers, “So far, it’s not very clear where the bouquet is grown or where it’s made,” Van Wingerden said.
While California has its own label to mark flowers that are 90 percent locally grown, often “you lose the identity” when flowers are compiled into bouquets, Van Wingerden said.
As in Europe, most cut flowers sold in the US are imported. About 80 percent of fresh flowers sold in America come from Colombia and Ecuador. These imports have hurt flower farmers in the US.
“Right now, as US producers, we’ve already accepted it,” Van Wingerden said. The business is ruled by “whoever can produce it at cheapest.”
To stand out among the foreign competition, Van Wingerden has diversified into orchids, which are hard to import. He also sells hydroponic-grown lettuce and herbs in addition to ready-made bouquets.
It appears that American clients want to buy domestic, as long as items are similarly priced in stores, he added. Through less travel time, “the US-made bouquet will look fresher.”
Whereas flower production in Europe has shrunk drastically in recent decades, East Africa’s business is thriving.
Odete of Hivos said the cut-flower industry had created 60,000 jobs in Ethiopia and 150,000 in Kenya. Many farms are owned by foreign investors — mainly Dutch farmers.
“Initially, there was some hostility in regards to people coming here, renting land and profiting,” Odete said of the foreign farmers.
Relations have also been “frosty” between workers and the trade unions that are trying to represent them, he added, as workers have been criticizing the unions for not playing their role effectively.
Overall, Odete said, there is unease between the workers and unions on one side, and the growers and government on the other. “Building relations has been a challenge,” he said.
While many local people have adapted to the foreign farm owners and welcome more work in East Africa, many people are still unhappy to be earning far less than a living wage.
Earning a wage that ensures workers can meet their basic needs is a human right. Yet for growers and retailers in the African flower sector, it is nothing more than a dot on the horizon.
Since wages are a persistent problem in many global supply chains and cannot be solved by growers alone, Hivos and Fairfood International, a Dutch nongovernment organization that advocates for a sustainable global food system, have started the Living Wage Lab in the Netherlands. It brings together Netherlands-based players in the agro-food sector to find ways to offer living wages in their supply chains.
The Lab consists of participants from the Dutch government, trade unions, growers, retailers, nongovernment organizations, certification bodies and researchers. Some of the supermarkets that are involved include the largest Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn; the German global discount supermarket chain, Lidl; and its competitor, Aldi, the leading global discount supermarket chain.
Besides the low-wage problem in East African flower production, many employees also must manage getting to and from work safely as they cannot afford transportation.
“It’s still a challenge,” Odete said. “At the end of the day, workers have to walk home,” Odete said, explaining that walking in the dark leaves women at risk of rape.
More than 70 percent of the workers are women. They are often uneducated and young, 18 to 25 years old. More than 60 percent are single mothers with at least two children each.
Odete said the problem of sexual assault is “grave” in Kenya, but “we have seen some improvements.” With some farms now offering bus transport for their workers, “the numbers have gone down significantly.”
Odete said he doesn’t have quantifiable data on the numbers of rapes that happen during walking trips to and from farms, but “even one is too much.”
Conditions are improving on farms that subscribe to the ideals of fair trade and do business that aims to be socially responsible: besides organizing transportation for their employees, they pay higher wages, provide a safe and healthy workplace and offer possibilities for employees to organize themselves through worker and gender committees.
“Farms are increasingly embracing us in the work we do,” Odete said, though he qualifies that by saying that Hivos is walking a fine line with farmers.
“It’s a very delicate balance because they have interests, which are first and foremost profit.”
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Mirva Lempiainen is a journalist from Finland who writes about travel, culture and social issues for media based in Finland and in the US. She has a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and writes a travel blog at www.writeronthemove.com.