Feb 11, 2009

EES Week 1: Blossoming Trade Conceals Roots of Exploitation

By Maggie Murphy


There is more than one reason to smile come Valentine’s Day in Ethiopia. The young delight in exchanging cards and red roses on February 14th, a practice unheard of in the years before the floriculture industry took off in 2005; evidence that even traditions respond to globalization. As for flower farmers, Valentine’s Day provides a welcome financial boost as the 2 million stems flown to Europe each and every day in the first two weeks of the month increase overall sales by around 50%. However, concerns are being voiced about the possible exploitation of land and labourers - the fundamental roots of this fast growing industry, without which there can be no future.

Arid plains and barren landscapes have for a long time shaped the image of Ethiopia, evocative of the famine that gripped the country in the mid eighties causing a devastating loss of a million lives. Yet today, bright blooms of roses, carnations, shrubs, summer flowers and trees blanket large swathes of Oromia region, protected under the glass sheets of large green houses. The country experienced 11.1% economic growth in 2008, with flower exports generating $150 million, double the amount earned by the industry just twelve months earlier. The 1000 hectares currently awash with vibrant floral colours is set to treble by the end of 2009. The sector currently employs around 60,000 workers, 70% of whom are women. But if all those whose entrepreneurial instincts have been unleashed to accommodate, feed, water, clothe, entertain and transport the workers in the towns surrounding the farms are included, this number jumps to more than 80,000.

One such boomtown is Zeway in Oromia, which in 2005 had a population of 50,000 and an unemployment rate of 50%.  That was the year that Sher Ethiopia, today the country’s largest flower farm, first took root. Zeway has since come alive. Today the town bustles with energy. Shops and cafes have sprung up, roads have been built and profits made. Sher itself employs around 8000 workers, but has channelled a substantial proportion of their profits into community schemes. A new stadium hosted its first football match in December 2008 and the shrieks and squeals of more than 2000 students fill the playground of a new primary school. Both were financed by Sher Ethiopia. The town’s first hospital, opened in December 2007 was also built by the flower farm to ensure its workers had adequate and affordable access to healthcare. It has since opened its doors to the wider community too. The farm is on its way to acquiring the internationally respected Socially Qualified Certificate from the Dutch organization, MPS, which acts as proof that employees enjoy good working conditions and that the farms fulfil specific criteria on health, safety and terms of employment, based on International Labour Organization requirements.

However, not all of Ethiopia’ farms hold such standards in high regard. Concerns have been raised over the working conditions of farm employees elsewhere in Ethiopia. For eight hours each day, workers toil in temperatures that touch 40 degrees Celsius. A single day-off each fortnight is the only respite. Workers earn around a dollar a day, much less than the price of a single stem bought in the streets of Amsterdam on Valentine’s Day.

Furthermore, one hundred and twenty chemicals are used in Ethiopia’s floriculture industry, of which fifteen are classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization. These chemicals can cause lasting damage to brain cells and the immune system and have been known to bring about miscarriages in pregnant women according to the Addis Ababa University Science Faculty. Symptoms include fainting spells, nausea and extreme vomiting, all of which have been reported at flower farms in different parts of the country. The MPS Socially Qualified Certificate demands that workers wear protective clothing at all times when dealing with pesticides and fertilizers with high toxic content but reports suggest this guideline is rarely followed.

In February 2008, Ethiopia’s Jimma Times told the story of Mamush Kebede who worked as a sprayer on a flower farm near Menagesh. His arms developed rashes in reaction to the chemicals he used on a daily basis but he felt compelled to leave his job when the owner refused to allow him to transfer to another unit. Other workers complain of blisters and burns and nauseating smells in greenhouses after plants have been sprayed. The MPS Socially Qualified Certificate demands that 6 hours must elapse before people are asked to work in such conditions but it is believed this rarely happens. These anecdotes lend unfortunate poignancy to a proverb commonly used in Oromia; "Harka namaatin ibidda qabuun nama hin dhibu" ("No one is afraid of touching fire with someone else's hand").

And yet, workers have no collective bargaining power because they have been forbidden from forming trade unions according to Ato Tariku Schachachew, General Secretary of the Ethiopian Confederation of Labour Unions. He described one instance where workers were even fired from one flower farm when they tried to form a union to ensure safe working conditions.

As well as exploitation of the workforce, little is known about the environmental repercussions posed by hosting such a rapidly increasing number of farms. There were just 2 private flower farms in 1999, today there are 77 and although the government has created regulatory laws and published guidelines to safeguard natural resources, the speed with which the sector is growing impedes adequate monitoring.  It cannot be forgotten that the future of floriculture in the country - which hopes it hopes will overtake coffee as the main export by 2013 - depends on good management and a sound understanding of the irreversible effects that can be had by overloading the ecosystem.

Protecting the local environment is essential to ensure such industries can generate sustainable economic growth for a nation trying to climb out of mass poverty. Chemical pest controls increase soil salinity destroying its productivity, but biological ones are up to 20% more expensive. According to in-house agronomist Ato Seyoum Fenya, the containers which store twenty litres of pesticide used each day on Menagesha Flower farm are reportedly buried in the grounds without being sealed. If unsealed, the chemicals directly enter local ecosystems and can contaminate local water supplies with devastating long-term effects on local communities. Even if the containers are sealed and then buried, thus following the advice of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority, this probably only delays a huge future environmental catastrophe.

The government provide potential investors with extremely attractive incentives such as exemptions on customs duty and income tax. However there is concern that the government is too eager in their attempt to capitalize on the nation’s agricultural potential and good transport links and is not providing meaningful regulation which safeguards the future of the industry and the health and wellbeing of their workers. All companies are legally bound to conduct an environmental impact assessment prior to launching a new project. Disturbingly though, in an interview with the Jimma Times in February 2008, Abrahim Haile Meskelot, an expert within the government-run Environmental Protection Agency said he himself is not sure how the assessments are conducted.

Instances have also been reported of excessive government pressure on local landowners to sell their plots of land to the expanding flower companies. Three in five farms are owned by foreign companies, and some Ethiopians believe their government is neglecting their duty to their own people when faced with the attractive prospect of cashing in on large profits. Many locals say they do not benefit at all from the flower farm presence. Indeed the sums of money generated by the farms are incomprehensible to the 80% of the national population that survive on less than $2 a day.

Adhering to international codes of conduct with respect to workers’ rights and environmental protection increases the grading and value of the flower in international fora. This should provide enough of an incentive for the government to channel funds and incentives into ensuring quality over quantity and it would be wise to ensure that the future of the industry is in Ethiopian hands.

Coincidentally, Addis Ababa, the name of the Ethiopian capital, means “new flower” in Amharic and the roses that are bought on Valentine’s Day many thousands of miles away are generating fresh hope of a brighter and more stable future for Ethiopia. But beautiful flowers depend on strong and healthy roots. Protecting the workers and their land is one step towards ensuring that the industry lasts longer than a rosebud exchanged on February 14th.