New Internationalist

A rosier Valentine’s for Ugandan flower workers

February 2011

Valentine’s day: 14th February

An item from the Agenda section of the magazine, where we look beyond the news curve with reports and comment on breaking stories.

Jocelyn Edwards
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.

Jocelyn Edwards

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 439 This feature was published in the February issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 439

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

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– Emma Thompson –

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