Caroline Shikuku at the Tulaga flower farm in Kenya.

Better wages and working conditions on farms are key to East African flower sector’s post-pandemic recovery, Fairtrade and partners tell industry

Flower retailers, suppliers and consumers must start paying a fairer share of the value of stems they purchase, so that flower workers in East Africa have the better wages and working conditions vital for ensuring the sector’s sustainability in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cross-industry group led by Fairtrade Foundation and MM Flowers has said.

In a new report produced by the coalition of retail, academic and international development partners, the flower sector is being urged to put in place immediate measures to enable East African flower farms and their workers – who supply blooms to UK shoppers – to withstand the impacts of crises such as COVID-19 and climate change.

Published this week, the report draws on lessons gathered from a one-year project, Building Resilience in Flower Supply Chains, jointly led by the Fairtrade Foundation and MM Flowers, and delivered in partnership with Fairtrade Africa, the Co-op, Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Coventry University, Food Network for Ethical Trade (FNET), Partner Africa, and Women Working Worldwide.

Over the past year, the group has set out to support 6,000 Kenyan flower workers and their families to meet their needs – including for food, nutrition, health support and additional income – during the pandemic, and to create a more resilient flower industry. This work was funded through the Vulnerable Supply Chains Facility (VSCF), a rapid COVID-19 response fund set up by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).1

The global export of cut flowers was worth over £6.75bn in 2018, but flower farms still receive very low prices for their products. Even before the pandemic, flower workers faced low wages, weak social safety nets, food insecurity, and poor water and sanitation quality. This situation has been intensified by the pandemic, which saw workers losing jobs or having to take unpaid leave as flights were grounded, transport costs soared, exports were disrupted and sales plummeted in the early part of the pandemic.

A year later, many workers are still struggling to make ends meet. According to a poll conducted by Partner Africa, 65 percent of flower workers surveyed reported that their household income had reduced in the six months leading up to May 2021, while only 28 percent reported their wages lasting the entire month.

Now, Fairtrade Foundation, MM Flowers and partners are urging the sector – including governments, retailers, suppliers and flower farms in East Africa – to take steps to boost recovery and resilience in the supply chain. They outline a number of ways to do this in their report, titled Recommendations for building fairer, more sustainable and resilient flower supply chains in East Africa.

In order to address the longer term challenges facing the Kenyan and East African flower supply chain, Fairtrade and partners are proposing the launch of a ‘British Covenant’, modelled on the Dutch Covenant for Responsible Business Conduct in Floriculture. This, they say, ‘would comprehensively and collectively address the challenges facing the flower industry, and the contribution the UK can make to tackling them’. A British equivalent to the Dutch Covenant would agree and implement actions to: ensure flower farms are better able to absorb future shocks and emergencies; increase workers’ earnings towards living wages; help flower farms adapt to a changing climate and reduce on-farm and export emissions; tackle gender inequalities on flower farms.

In the shorter-term, the report recommends that as an immediate priority in 2021:

  • Buyers (suppliers and retailers) should protect and nurture key, long-term relationships with farms, by actively listening to farm management about the challenges they face, and should commit to observing all fair/ethical trading principles: in particular, by providing sourcing plans covering at least six months where possible, and adhering to agreed contracting terms.
  • Farm management should ensure wages continue to be paid in full, with minimum changes to contracts, and explore additional ways to support flower workers to cope with the increases to the cost of living in Kenya – for instance, by providing free or subsidised food;
  • The Kenyan government should, as much as budgetary constraints allow, improve social security systems for flower workers, to help the most vulnerable whose incomes have been reduced as a result of COVID-19, as well as ensuring that labour and occupational health and safety legislation is enforced.

‘Ambitious proposals’

Louisa Cox, Director of Impact at the Fairtrade Foundation, said: ‘COVID-19 has been extremely harmful, both economically and socially, for flower farm workers across East Africa. For instance, 30,000 temporary flower workers in Kenya lost their jobs by the third week of March 2020, with women bearing the brunt of the crisis. As Fairtrade has previously noted, without living wages many workers lacked the savings needed cope with the pandemic. Today, many workers are still suffering from the pandemic’s impacts.

‘If we want to see long-lasting change in the flower sector, including better wages and better working conditions, then more money needs to reach the people at the start of the supply chain: the women and men who grow the blooms we love to buy. Fairtrade Foundation is delighted that, through this FCDO-funded project, retailers and suppliers have made a welcome commitment to finding a solution to this and have expressed a desire to continue collaborating with others in the sector.

‘The proposals put forward in our new paper are ambitious, and will require time and resources from all stakeholders. While it won’t be easy, the reward will be a world in which flower farm workers and their families live a life of dignity, and where the flower industry is, ultimately, much fairer and much more resilient.’

Colum Donnelly, Technical Director at MM Flowers said: ‘This report distils the learnings from the VSCF ‘Building Resilience in Flower Supply Chains project’, which we have been proud to co-lead with Fairtrade and deliver with all our retail and NGO partners. COVID-19 has exacerbated some of the inherent weaknesses that were already present in the flower supply chain and illuminated the vulnerabilities that exist in this and many other sectors worldwide.  

‘There are clear actions that require support from each and every participant in the chain, from growers through to governments, and each has the potential to generate transformational change to deliver a fairer, sustainable and more resilient floriculture industry. We will be working collaboratively with our partners to deliver innovative and impactful programmes to address the issues highlighted and on the progression of the idea of a UK Covenant to build a truly sustainable business for all.’

Fairtrade and MM Flowers hope to begin talks towards a British Covenant with interested stakeholders as early as this year: this would include flower retailers and suppliers who expressed interest in a Covenant when participating in a series of roundtables conducted by Coventry University as part of the VSCF project.

Dr Jill Timms and Dr David Bek from Coventry University’s Centre for Business in Society were both involved in the VSCF project. Dr Jill Timms commented: ‘Contributing the academic input to this project has been illuminating. However, I am most excited by the fact this is not the end – rather it is a serious step towards significant change.

‘In addition to our immediate achievements, we have established a solid foundation of understanding and stakeholder commitment from which to build and deliver our recommendations. A British Covenant could provide a framework for this collaborative work, instigating sustainable improvements to work in the flower industry, as well as its impact on the planet.’

Read the full report, ‘Recommendations for building fairer, more sustainable and resilient flower supply chains in East Africa’ [PDF]

Two VSCF learning briefs are now available:

For more information or interviews contact Tomilola Ajayi, Senior Media & Communications Manager, Fairtrade Foundation:

Notes to Editors

1. The Building Resilience in Flower Supply Chains project was funded by the Vulnerable Supply Chains Facility (VSCF), a rapid COVID-19 response fund set up by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and managed by Mott MacDonald Ltd. The facility has partnered with 16 UK retailers supporting over 100 suppliers across Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Myanmar, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe to provide economic, social, and health benefits to around 1 million women and men direct and indirectly.

2. Launched in July 2020, the Building Resilience in Flower Supply Chains project provided direct support to over 6,000 flower workers on both Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade farms. This included through providing health packages to workers, introducing kitchen, shared worker and nutritional gardens, running gender awareness training, and support with income generation activities for workers and ways for farms to diversify. The project also ran a COVID-19 awareness-raising campaign, through radio and posters, which reached almost 100,000 people.

3. The recommendations in the report build on contextual knowledge from Fairtrade Foundation and MM Flowers, worker and farm analysis by Partner Africa, gender research by Women Working Worldwide, and discussions with flower suppliers and retailers at roundtables that formed part of Coventry University’s research into UK flower sourcing and consumer behaviour during the pandemic.