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The pain behind the beauty of flowers

March 9, 2005

Hadeco farm

My blogging is likely to suffer a little in the near future, as I have moved again and I’m currently staying somewhere without an Internet connection. Blogging from an Internet cafe is just not the same. But there is a post pending, about my recent trip up country to research the cut flower industry.

The research was commissioned by the IUF (International Union of Food, Agriculture, etc. etc.), the ICFTU (International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) affiliate that deals with the sector, and deals especially with the appalling working conditions on flower farms in South Africa.

I spent a few days travelling around, speaking to farm workers and trade unionists, and found not only appalling wages, but also stories of workers being forced to leave the farms they’d lived on for 36 years after they became to old to work.

Also, the cut flower industry uses loads of pesticides (flowers have to look perfect), and this isn’t really carefully monitored as people don’t eat flowers and so there’s little danger of consumers being poisoned. But of course it is the poor peasants in the rural areas who get poisoned, as they spray crops often without even rudimentary safety equipment.

So if you are going to buy flowers from South Africa, try to stick to indigenous varieties, like proteacea and other kinds of fynbos, as these are usually grown a lot more sustainably. The picture at the top is of me speaking to workers at a flower farm in Little Falls, Gauteng, owned by agribusiness Hadeco.

Here’s the article I wrote for them. If you prefer, you can read it in Finnish here.

When we first see Letty Maredi, 25, she is wearing the striking scarlet T-shirt of the Landless People’s Movement, a radical social movement causing fear amongst farmers and government alike with its threats to invade and settle land. ‘Land! Food! Jobs!’ cries the slogan on the T-shirt, and all of these are contentious issues in rural areas where the balance of power has not shifted much since the 1994 advent of democracy. After 10 years of black majority rule, Maredi and others like her are still dispossessed and at the mercy of white landowners.

Maredi lives with her family on a tulip farm owned by the company Hadeco, outside Belfast in Mpumalanga, 200 kilometres east of Johannesburg. Belfast is a small town known for its fly fishing and the tulip farm, both of which are tourist attractions. She works on the farm as a seasonal labourer, but would like to leave and further her education. She has a high school diploma, but can’t afford to study further.
She tells us that the farm workers would like to make claims for land restitution, but don’t know how to go about it. The Land Claims Commission, set up to facilitate the restoration of land to black people dispossessed by apartheid, has been heavily criticised for its slow pace and ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy of paying farmers market rates for their farms before returning them to the community.

The South African flower industry is concentrated in just two parts of the country, the highveld, within a 300 kilometre radius of Johannesburg, and the Western Cape. The most widely grown flowers are roses, chrysanthemums and carnations. About 50% of flowers grown are consumed by a healthy domestic market, while the rest are exported. 80% of South African flowers go to the EU, while the rest go to the US and Japan. In some cases, South African flowers, especially chrysanthemums and indigenous fynbos, are sold to Kenyan bouquet makers who sell them on to British supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Kenya is by far the largest African producer of cut flowers.

Flowers for the domestic market are auctioned at Multiflora in Johannesburg, a flower market modeled on the Dutch Alsmeer. We spoke to public relations manager Andre Nieuwenhuys. Tight mouthed about everything except sweeping generalities, he showed us the auction floor and explained that Multiflora is jointly owned by major growers as a way to efficiently sell their products. Flowers arrive during the night, and the auction starts at seven in the morning. By eleven, most have been sold and shipped.

While most flower farms are small, and employ under 20 workers, Hadeco dominates the South African market. It is an agribusiness with seven farms and a laboratory that specialises in creating new hybrids of flowers. We spoke to sales and marketing manager Paul Vonk – “be careful, it means ‘spark’ in Dutch”, he warned us – who gave us information about the company.

Started in 1946 by two Dutch immigrants, Floor Barnhoorn and Harry de Leeuw, and managed today by their descendants, the company produces cut flowers and bulbs for the local and export market. It claims to be an international leader in the ‘breeding, raising, growing and worldwide distribution of bulbs, flowers and laboratory plant material’. Each year, the company sells 100 million bulbs and 40 million flower stems. It is perhaps best known for its striking Amaryllis, a bulb variety created in its lab that is exported to Europe.

Produce from all farms is brought to the main farm at Little Falls, 50 kilometres west of Johannesburg, where it is graded and sorted and either sent to auction for the domestic market or packed for export. We visited the Little Falls farm with Zacharias Mohanoe, president of the National Union of Farmworkers (NUF), which organises Hadeco workers. The union is aligned to the federation Nactu, which has its roots in Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness movement. Fiercely independent, Nactu unions are usually desperately under resourced – the NUF has just 3 staff members.
The other union organising in the sector is the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU), which is aligned to the federation Cosatu and to the ruling African National Congress. While the unions have a good working relationship with each other, sometimes there are tensions among workers over political allegiances.
According to Mohanoe, Hadeco is a union-bashing company. The NUF won a recognition agreement with the company in 2001. After that, he says union members were individually targeted, being interrogated by management and encouraged to leave the union.

According to Pauline Mokone, who is the union deputy president and a shop steward, as well as a laboratory supervisor on the Little Falls farm, union members were hit with unfair disciplinary actions for minor infringements like insubordination and coming to work late. Some were unfairly dismissed. Fighting these cases consumed time and resources for the union, and it lost its majority and recognition agreement.

We spoke to Moses Manganyi and Edward Tshankoma, both shop stewards. They tell us that pay and conditions are bad. Manganyi is a militant shop steward, and claims that management moved him off the farm and gave him the job of cleaning the workers’ compound to frustrate his organising.

“That man is the backbone of the union. Without him, we wouldn’t survive”, says Mohanoe.

When we visited the Hadeco farm in Belfast, we were pleasantly surprised by the tranquil atmosphere and relative quality of the workers’ homes. Farmworkers’ living conditions in South Africa are notoriously bad, but the houses on this farm are rustic but decent, “nice, but too small”, as Maredi says.

But there’s more to the story than this: we spoke to Rose Sibanyeni, 53, a tea maker who has lived and worked on the farm with her husband since 1970. “Ja [yes], the houses are nice”, she says to me in Afrikaans. “But when my husband dies or I am too old to work I will have to leave”. She will be pensioned off at 60, and lose the right to stay on the farm. With the R2000 (about 250 Euro) she has been told she will receive as a pension payout, she will have to leave her home of 35 years and find a place to live in the sub-economic black township – called a lokasie – outside the town of Belfast.

Elizabeth Simelane, 52, confirms this. She has been on the farm 36 years. Since her husband died, the company has been deducting money for the house she lives in. She hasn’t been told whether this is for rent, or to pay off the house, but she expects she will have to leave when she turns 60. “Then where must I go, a gogo [granny] like me with no husband?” she asks.

There is no union majority on this farm, and NUF shop steward Isaac Tloe tells us the same story about management intimidation that we heard from the workers at Little Falls. Many of the workers told us they see no point in joining the union: “they take our money and do nothing”, said one. They are probably right – there is little an under resourced union based 200 kilometres away can do for them. They tell us that the NUF is the second union to attempt to organise the farm.

Apart from labour problems, the cut flower industry also uses a tremendous amount of pesticides. Flowers need to look perfect, so great care is taken to kill pests in the area. Because the product is not for human consumption, pesticide use is not widely monitored. Hadeco workers in Belfast claim that they spray pesticides without protective equipment. While we were unable to verify this, it seems likely that this is the case on at east some flower farms in the country.

A farm which initially seemed entirely different was the Living Gold project started by Anglo Gold, a mining company, and much touted as an example of corporate social responsibility and sustainable development. Anglo Gold is a major gold producer, and South Africa’s economic growth was built on the back of gold mining. In the past few years, the South African rand has risen substantially against the US Dollar, and mines are having to dig up to three kilometres deep to find gold, since veins closer to the surface have been mined out. This has meant that many mines are no longer economically viable. Living Gold was an investment by Anglo Gold of R 70 million [Euro 9 million] to redeploy 250 retrenched workers on a farm growing roses for export that would provide a sustainable living for a community.

But there’s another side to the story. We spoke to Moleko Phakedi, a FAWU regional organiser based in the Johannesburg office.

“The stated objectives and aim of the project are good”, he told us, “but it took a twist. There was a shift in how the project is run. It moved away from its original intentions of social responsibility and is now clearly profit based. The labour force was transferred to labour brokers, which are increasingly becoming a problem. Conditions and wages are already bad, and now a middleman is added between workers and employers. There is a confusion between supervisors and managers who are employed by the farm, and workers employed by the labour broker who take orders from managers – there is a conflict about where orders come from.”

They became frustrated and took action, engaging in a wildcat strike – Phakedi is careful to use the legal term “unprotected industrial action” – in 2004, and were dismissed. Issues were conditions of service, wages and health and safety. The union is fighting to have them reinstated.

Living Gold is part of the Flower Label Programme, which has an International Code of Conduct (ICC) that ensures that producers adhere to labour, social, health and safety and environmental standards. The ICC adheres to ILO labour standards, and has guidelines regarding the use of pesticides and protective equipment and training for workers. The label is useful for market share in the EU, but Phakedi believes that many local producers would lose the right to carry the label if their activities were exposed. FAWU has been working with human rights organisation FIAN over the issue.

The situation in the other region producing cut flowers, the Western Cape, is in many ways quite different. Most production in this area is of indigenous flowers, particularly proteas and other fynbos species. The region is one of only 6 floral kingdoms in the world, and is both the smallest and the most bio-diverse. Its 8 600 species exceed even the Amazon rain forest in diversity.

The industry goes back 100 years in this region, and has been traditionally been practiced by local communities harvesting wild flowers. However, as international demand has increased, it has become necessary to farm proteas (Proteaceae) on a wider scale. Despite this, fynbos production has a good reputation for sustainability and fair practice, and the industry body SAPPEX cooperates with the Agricultural Research Council Fynbos Unit to protect wild species.

They look beautiful and smell sweet, but our appetite for the transient glory of flowers masks an industry that often exploits workers and poisons the environment.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 14, 2005 9:06 am

    god, you’re sexy, can’t wait to have you in my arms. T

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