If there is one thing that women working in flower farms want, is that their employers adhere to and practice corporate social responsibility. This was the concern raised during the event ‘Strengthening Corporate Accountability and Decent Work for Women in Precarious Employment’, a side event at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
The event was organized by Hivos, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) and the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda).
Corporate social responsibility
One of the reasons for lack of corporate social responsibility in Kenya and Uganda, like in other African countries, is that governments are keen to protect the interests of investors over those of the workers. They either look the other way or prescribe less punitive sanctions when the farms fail to adhere to the dictates of corporate social responsibility.
Workers too are fearful of demanding that the farms abide by corporate social responsibility. Instead, they suffer in silence. The high unemployment rates and huge demand for jobs make them persevere.
The other reason why they fear speaking and why governments do not come to their rescue is because many of these farms are owned by powerful people who are involved in the government. This political interest in ownership or directorship of the horticultural business enterprises has contributed to failure of states in their duty to protect rights and demand companies to respect rights of their workers as dictated by United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Challenges for women workers
This year’s CSW focused on social protection systems, access to public services, sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. These topic are very relevant for women working in sectors that are considered precarious, such as horticulture. The forum therefore presented a good opportunity for both state and non-state actors to reflect on the issues affecting women workers.
According to Mary Kambo, a labor rights adviser at the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), women workers still have to grapple with challenges posed by affordable childcare, healthcare, education, maternity protection, pensions and safe transport. These challenges can be blamed on failed corporate social responsibility.
Kambo said that most women in the flower sector, for instance, work in situations that are much less secure, have less bargaining power, and are paid incredibly low wages. They are forced to meet unreasonable targets, and not paid overtime when they do so. These women workers, she added, are in some instances exposed to chemicals, faced with rampant sexual harassment and mass exploitation.
“Most of these women have to work for long hours into the night. While transport is provided for free of charge, they are dropped far from their residential places, exposing them to sexual assault and rape.”
At the workplace, Kambo observed that the situation is disheartening. “Some of these women have suffered spontaneous abortions while others can hardly conceive due to the use of prohibited chemicals and non-observance of re-entry hours.”
She cited a research done by the KHRC which revealed inadequate maternity protection for the women in flower farms. “Most of these women leave their babies in deplorable informal day care facilities. Our research findings indicate that children at the facilities are drugged to make them manageable and allowing care givers to take in more children.”
This situation, she said had been exacerbated by the fact that most of these women cannot afford to hire house helps due to low pay. Even the breastfeeding breaks that women are allowed to take rarely benefit them due to structural barriers.
The participants in this side meeting observed that while the government was willing to regulate the sector, actual enforcement is limited.
Kambo gave the example of the Solai Dam tragedy, which mainly affected women and children. “Hard questions abound on how the government has responded to this case. Compensation and basic justice are still lacking. The government actions seem overprotective of the investors as opposed to workers.”
Treaty on business and human rights
Lydia Lubega of FIDA-Uganda said there is a need to include gender perspectives in the draft treaty on business and human rights. She said the treaty and protocol provide for a complaints mechanism at the national level, which enables actors to assess the impact of entities doing business.
“The treaty suggests a good enforcement ground for any one aggrieved and rides on local mechanisms to push for justice. This will help bring complaints mechanism closer to those affected, hence easier to address the human rights abuses.”
The only challenge is that the treaty is optional, meaning a country can decide to ratify it or not. Notwithstanding this challenge, the treaty could provide a good starting point to demand corporate responsibility and best practices for promoting decent work for women.