I struggled to write this story.
I thought that maybe if I used all the descriptive language I know, to paint a picture of how ugly the situation is, it might make flowers seem ugly.
What a lie that would be! Because after we spent half the day talking to the women whose job is to tend to these brightly colored plants for export and realizing that theirs is not a rosy job at all, I was still genuinely happy to receive a bouquet while we left.
I however wondered if working on the farm, changes their perception of flowers, or if they are or would still be happy to receive flowers on special occasions. Are flowers still exciting-colorful things to them or just stock? After all, a friend who works at the Central Bank once told me the bank notes we wake up every day to chase are just a bulk of items of which they even take stock. Then I thought that maybe I should make this a petition and ask that buyers of flowers to boycott the industry until some changes are made, but I realized that call to action might need a more powerful person than I am to yield results.
The plight of women working on flower farms in Uganda has been highlighted by media and women rights’ organizations in the recent past so it is understandable that owners of flower farms are suspicious when anyone asks to speak to their employees.
The result, we ended up with scripted answers to our questions on their working conditions. Although we declared that our intentions weren’t to put them in any trouble, we were only allowed to talk / interview a handful of carefully selected candidates who either have slightly more benefits than their peers or were asked to say so. By the end of the day, we had enough data to launch a full scale PR campaign for the flower industry.The interviews were highly supervised by hovering management staff.
We didn’t get to talk to the young girl who is evidently of school going age, but instead spends her days, standing under the heat of the glaring white light of the florescent tube, sorting every rose meticulously and looking up only to pick up her next bucket of work.
There were also no words exchanged between us and the frail looking old woman whose wrinkled bare hands picked away at a pile of pink roses. She could only manage a nod. Management insists that some of the workers are adamant about working without the gloves which begs the questions, when did they learn to work with thorns without protective gear? How much pain did they take before they became numb to it?
Most people wince at the slightest prick by any remotely sharp object, so it must take a certain level of resilience to become numb to thorns. The only plausible explanation is, provision of these gloves is a recent development following the scrutiny flower farms have had from rights organizations, which many women aren’t accustomed to, consider to be only a luxury.
But beyond gloves, boots and masks, the work on these farms is gruesome. Most of it especially in the grading room where we spent the chunk of our time requires standing for long hours. The scripted interviewees all stated that work starts at around 7am and ends at 5pm; yet most of them were still at it well past 5 pm when we left. There were no breaks except for the bathroom, no clear system of shifts.
The same women told us that they have children at home and little or no help in taking care of them. Their work therefore doesn’t end with them taking off their work uniform, washing off the chemicals in the bathroom in the corner of the room, whose door doesn’t lock, and heading home. There are meals to cook, uniforms to iron, home work to do and may be sex to offer before it is 5am to do it all over again.
The irony is that for each of them that we asked if they had a message for other women in the spirit of women’s day they encouraged fellow women to “work hard”. Tell me again, why when women die, “capitalism and sexism” aren’t listed as official causes of death in their post mortem reports? Maybe, this is a petition I might pull off.