Female shop steward out to champion workers’ rights
Serving as a shop steward is no mean task. But for Marion Kipsang *(not her real name), this is the only way she can champion and defend workers’ rights.
And although this task is fraught with challenges, her spirit is unrelenting. As the first union representative, Kipsang has had to contend with constant threats of dismissal and being denied access to the farm.
At the time of this interview, Kipsang had just been reinstated after she was sacked as she tried to push for a pay rise outlined in a Collective Bargaining Agreement signed by her employer.
With this, she has become a household name with the workers unanimously endorsing her for the position of a deputy chief shop steward.
Kipsang has been able to galvanize workers with the aim of raising their awareness on rights as enshrined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and other legal instruments.
“I started this awareness campaigns after I noticed that the employer was taking advantage of workers ignorance on matters pertaining to the CBA, Labour laws, Labour relations as outlined in the Employment Act, the Constitution and International Labour Organisation standards,” she adds.
In addition, she has had to spare time to address the myriad of challenges facing her colleagues.
“I walk with a pen and a notebook and the grievances filed by employees are overwhelming. They range from sexual harassment to being overworked and summary dismissals.”
The situation has further been aggravated by managers who use summary dismissals to deny benefits to seasoned workers who earn more due to standard yearly pay raises.
Besides, workers in the farm have to grapple with hazardous work, low pay, lack of job security coupled with job discrimination and lack of labour laws enforcement.
“Women are hard hit and majority often work overtime without compensation especially when production surges around Valentines day.”
“We have had cases of women employees who have sustained injuries on the job. Majority have rashes or eye burns while others have suffered miscarriage.”
She says while it is a requirement that employees stay away when hazardous chemicals are sprayed in the farms, in some cases the green houses are sprayed while we are still inside.
Like Kipsang, most employees here earn a paltry Ksh 5000 and an additional Ksh 2000 as house allowance.
“Most of us here are former employees of the defunct Creative flower farm. The union intervened and we were paid our dues. The union also compelled the new management to retain all workers under a new collective bargaining agreement which is yet to be enforced.”
However the farm was fraudulently registered as a vegetable farm in a bid to lower our basic salary to Ksh 5,000. We are still a flower farm but the new management is adamant and has refused to increase our basic pay to Ksh 7,000 as outlined in the CBA.”
She says the plight of workers has worsened under the new management. “The company neglects the wellbeing of workers for that of flowers.”
“Our children are crammed in an onsite day care centre operated by a different entity under appalling conditions. We pay Ksh 50 daily for this service and an additional Ksh50 if you delay in picking up your child,” she adds.
Worst still, employees have to seek permission from the supervisors to answer a call of nature.
“If you complain, you are dismissed without benefits and therefore most workers suffer silently.”
She says that most of these grievances are forwarded to Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) branch in Naivasha and some have been acted upon and affected employees compensated.
While this has not gone well with the management, it has inspired her to work harder.
Kipsang takes credit for being able to push the management to allow nursing mothers one hour every day to breast feed their children.
She has also been instrumental in resolving cases of sexual harassment. “I report most of these cases to the gender committee. The alleged offender is summoned before the committee and the case is resolved without disclosing the complainant’s identity.”
Kipsang says that she will not relent until workers rights as outlined in the CBA are upheld.
About sixty percent of flower workers in the country now belong to the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) which collects on average 2percent of workers pay as dues to fund its lobbying for collective bargaining agreements.
According to the KPAWU’s National Organising Secretary Henry Omasire, the biggest challenge facing the union is “where the employer refuses to negotiate a CBA until you move to court for enforcement.”
He says that the situation has been aggravated by the weak labour laws in this country which give the employer room to employ people on seasonal basis for years. “This is very rampant in the flower industry where enforcement has become a challenge.”
He points out that the union has been trying to put in clauses to protect the seasonal employees as they negotiate new CBAs.
“We want them to start enjoying gratuity, leave allowance and other benefits just like other workers.”
In addition, he says that the union wants Parliament to tighten the law so that the employer does not have the leeway to recruit people on seasonal terms for years on.
He says that the status of women in the flower farms is appalling and cited cases where they are overworked with no single penny paid for their overtime.
The official intimates that while the CBA has specific clauses that address sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, enforcement is a challenge