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A rosier Valentine's for Ugandan flower workers

Jocelyn Edwards

When flower workers in Uganda are injured or have disputes with employers, they know who to go to. Stephen Barasa, head of the Ugandan Horticulture and Allied Workers’ Union, barely sits down to morning tea when he is interrupted by a worker who has fallen off the roof of a greenhouse and dislocated his wrist. Later, in the busy union office, he finds waiting for him an employee who has just been laid off.

Peter Olinga has been fired for not spraying all of a greenhouse, a task he swears he completed. ‘For six years I have not even been suspended for a day. But today they told me, “You go. We don’t need you – we will train someone else.”’

Barasa shakes his head, and says it’s a case of wrongful dismissal: ‘Don’t worry, we are going to handle it. You will go back to work.’

Since Barasa set up the flower workers’ union four years ago, Valentine’s Day has got a whole lot sweeter for the 8,000 workers in Uganda’s $35 million-a-year horticulture industry, which exports mainly roses. Barasa, who himself worked in the flower industry for 15 years, once saw a woman who could not afford to miss work give birth in a flower field. Employees got rashes from working unprotected with fertilizers; one even died from contact with the posionous chemicals they contain.

Now Ugandan flower workers have paid maternity and paternity leave as well as annual leave and weekly days off. As a result of the union’s demands, employers have purchased gumboots, smocks and gloves for employees. And perhaps most importantly, workers now have someone to intercede on their behalf with management.

With his livelihood in jeopardy, Olinga says that he is grateful to have Barasa there. Before the union, ‘workers were mistreated. They were voiceless if they had problems,’ he says.

The gains in the industry have not come without a struggle. When he started trying to unionize the industry, Barasa faced extreme hostility from employers. ‘If they even just saw me at the gate, they would call the police to arrest me,’ he recalls. Barasa was arrested seven times and countless workers were censured for their involvement with the union.

But today, arriving at the offices of the Ugarose flower farm in the town of Entebbe, Barasa greets Richard Omuria, head of personnel, with a hug. They laugh and joke as they talk, and refer to each other as brothers. Employers warmed to Barasa when they saw that the ideas he was introducing were actually increasing productivity.

Since they have been unionized, ‘workers are working happily,’ confirms Omuria. ‘A person will work harder knowing he has a day off. Workers are motivated now.’

Despite significant gains, there is still much to be done to improve conditions for flower workers. A single perfect rose may sell for several dollars in Europe, but employees here are paid just 2,200 Ugandan shillings ($1) a day.

An unfathomable future

Father figure: David Kato is determined to protect Uganda's beleaguered gay community.

Photo by Jocelyn Edwards

Sitting at a secluded table in a restaurant in Kampala, David Kato touches his shoulder to show where it was broken by a couple of off-duty police officers last year. As a gay man living in Uganda, Kato has been arrested three times and faced innumerable forms of harassment. But in the fight against the repressive anti-homosexuality bill now before the country’s parliament, he doesn’t mind having his picture taken or appearing on TV.

As the advocacy and litigation officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda, it’s not himself that Kato worries about most if the bill passes: it’s younger members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. ‘I can’t run away and leave the people I am protecting. People might die, but me, I will be the last one to run out of here. I have to keep on documenting the havoc that the bill is going to cause.’

Kato is one of the activists leading the fight against the law condemned most recently by President Obama as odious and unjust. International pressure since the bill was tabled last October resulted in Uganda backing away from the law’s most draconian provision: the execution of some gays. However, it remains to be seen if the backlash will moderate it any further. Even without the death sentence, the bill still calls for life imprisonment for those who commit ‘the offence of homosexuality’ and goes so far as to criminalize a simple touch as an ‘attempt to commit’ homosexuality.

A long-time activist, Kato has earned the title ‘grandfather of the kuchus’ – as gay men in Kampala call themselves – for his work on behalf of people in the LGBT community. He has sheltered at least 20 people in his home; he has visited them in prison and worked for their release. But the bill would put an end to his work at a time when it has never been more necessary. The law brands advocacy a ‘promotional activity’ and subjects it to a prison term of up to seven years.

Kato fears that, if the bill is passed, homophobic violence and discrimination in Uganda will get exponentially worse. ‘There will be much violence, because people will know: even if we hit [gays], even if we detain them, even if we harass them, the bill is there. They will know they are supported by the bill.’ Homophobia in Uganda is almost universal: one study reported that 95 per cent of citizens were against legalizing homosexuality.

Some in the LGBT community have already gone underground out of fear. Christopher Ssenyonjo, a retired Anglican bishop in Kampala, is perhaps the only member of the clergy still ministering to LGBT Christians. The bishop used to host a group of 20-25 worshippers for Sunday prayers at his office, tucked in a building on a side street in a quiet suburb. That number has dropped down to between five and seven since talk of the bill started: ‘People are not coming because they might be spotted,’ he explains.

In perhaps its most Orwellian edict, the bill calls for those aware of homosexual activity to turn in offenders within 24 hours. Bishop Ssenyonjo worries that this will create a fear of betrayal that will cut off people in the gay community from counselling and other help. Even if they can survive the bill’s other provisions, can they withstand a total lack of emotional support? Ssenyonjo believes that, for those mired in turmoil and self-hatred in a culture that despises and ostracizes them, ‘this may even lead to suicide’.

Jocelyn Edwards