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UGANDA: Good Labour Practices Bloom in Flower Industry

Erin Cunningham

PARIS, Aug 23 2007 (IPS) - A highly profitable industry has blossomed in "the Pearl of Africa", yielding not only exceptional returns on investment but helping raise labour standards. Rising from nearly zero production ten years ago, Uganda has emerged as a global power in the floricultural world and is now Africa&#39s fifth largest exporter of cut flowers.

With an investment of 60 million dollars and a growth rate of 14 percent, Uganda&#39s cut flower industry now boasts 20 commercial flower farms producing 35 varieties exported mainly to Europe.

While Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ethiopia dominate Africa&#39s cut flower export market, the Ugandan floriculture sector is close behind. It seeks to double production area by 2010 and boost profits from 30 million dollars in 2006 to 80 million dollars annually.

The growth has managed to raise rural incomes through job creation, widen the tax base, contribute to rural stability, and diversify export products, says the United Nations&#39 International Labour Organisation (ILO). The growth has also stimulated attendant industries.

"The floricultural industry has played a major role in poverty eradication and bringing in much needed foreign exchange revenue," Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) executive director Maggie Kigozi told IPS. "Investments in these opportunities will also bring into the country more revenue to develop the sector and other areas of the economy."

The industry currently employs about 6,000 Ugandans, with each person&#39s income supporting up to six dependants.

The export-driven business is largely credited with helping develop a landmark regulatory framework. Only the export-dominated fish industry has a similar code of conduct.

The Uganda Code of Practice for the Horticulture Sector finalised in 2002 sets down strict guidelines for farmers and managers in occupational safety, worker welfare, discrimination, and equal pay. The code puts the industry ahead of other agricultural sectors in labour standards, while bringing Uganda in line with other flower exporters in the region.

Compulsory on-site inspections are carried out by the Ugandan Flower Exporters Association (UFEA) and the Dutch audit company MPS. Most of Uganda&#39s flower exports end up in Dutch auction houses.

The first trade unions in the industry were set up earlier this year at the largest flower farms Rosebud Ltd. and Uganda Hortec after the National Union of Plantation and Agricultural Workers (NUPAWU) and UFEA reached an agreement on union recruitment and organisation.

"The labour unions have played an important role in improving the conditions of labourers in the industry, and currently the circumstances are considered better than in other sectors in the country," Andre de Jager, project manager at Capacity Building Floriculture Uganda, a Dutch organisation to promote education in Uganda&#39s floriculture industry told IPS.

An ILO report titled &#39Impact of the Flower Industry in Uganda&#39 released in 2000 found that flower farms provided workers accommodation, free tea and lunch, medical care, adequate leave, prompt payment of salaries and salary advances, and the right to leave for the day at 5pm.

These provisions have benefited gender development in the labour market. "About five years ago, 85 percent of the workers in the sector were women," says Kigozi. "Today the percentage should be higher."

While trade unions exist in most areas of Ugandan agriculture, other sectors prefer male labourers, according to the African Centre for Legal Excellence, a Uganda-based law institute offering training to lawyers from sub-Saharan nations.

"The flower industry gives an opportunity of employment to the less advantaged," says Cate Nakatugga, assistant project manager at Capacity Building Floriculture Uganda. "Women in the rural areas are not highly educated, so would not get into formal employment. Working on flower farms gives them an opportunity to obtain a better livelihood."

A study conducted in 2006 by the International Development Research Centre, a development studies organisation created and funded by the Canadian government, found that most female employees are hired as permanent workers with full benefits.

"All our workers have contracts," says Toby Maddison, managing director of Melissa&#39s Flowers. "Women get 60 days paid maternity leave. We have a doctor and dispensary where drugs are distributed at very low cost to workers and their families; the money raised thereby is used for a medical fund for operations or for family members who suffer complications. We are also in the process of setting up a fully equipped lab for HIV and malaria testing."

The claims of improvement follow a 2005 report by the Uganda Workers&#39 Education Association (UWEA) – a Ugandan NGO that aims to provide adult workers with sufficient labour education – that many workers were summarily dismissed in periods of market decline and presumed poor performance, and that they were exposed to damaging chemicals.

The position for women in the business is still not as bright as employment figures suggest. "Many growers do indeed prefer women workers, but they are usually at the bottom rung of the industry&#39s workforce," Chido Makaunike, administrator of the African Agriculture Blog, a news portal for developments in Africa&#39s agricultural sectors, told IPS.

"On the one hand, it is providing welcome employment to a largely unskilled and usually marginalised work force, but on the other hand this is such a low standard of &#39gender empowerment&#39 that it is hard to really crow about it."

But the international nature of the sector and growing consumer consciousness in Europe do keep both labour and production standards in check, and Kigozi sees the floriculture sector as setting a nationwide benchmark for labour regulations.

"The international market demands high quality products and standards, and consequently there is marked improvement," she said. "The floriculture sector is indeed playing a major role in the improvement of national labour standards as well as in the related sectors."

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