‘Heartless’ stores in Valentine storm

By agency reporter
14 Feb 2008

Supermarkets today are being branded “heartless” over exploiting overseas workers who face poor wages, health problems and job insecurity supplying flowers sold as Valentine’s Day gifts in Britain.

The accusation comes from War on Want, which says many employees in Kenya and Colombia have seen no improvement in their pay and conditions a year since the anti-poverty charity reported widespread abuses in the cut flowers sector.

New research shows Kenyan and Colombian staff toiling up to 14 hours a day preparing flowers for Valentine’s Day for less than half a living wage – too little to meet the costs of food, housing and healthcare.

In Kenya workers at smallholdings which export their flowers through larger farms receive on average only £20 a month, or less than 10p an hour.

A third of all blooms sold in Europe come from Kenya, while many UK supermarkets are also increasing their imports from Colombia’s cut flower farms.

Most of the employees in Kenya and Colombia are single mothers, struggling to raise children with one income.

Many staff engaged in repeated tasks and exposed to pesticides without adequate protection report sickness, including swollen legs, backache, vomiting and chest pains. Employees are more likely to suffer repetitive strain injuries in the run-up to Valentine’s Day as they work longer hours to meet heavier demand.

Casualisation of labour is another problem. Three in four Kenyan staff are on temporary contracts that deny them basic employment rights such as maternity leave.

The findings are based on a report due for publication soon by War on Want’s partner, the Kenya Women Workers’ Organisation, and information from the charity’s Colombian partner, Cactus.

Simon McRae, senior campaigns officer at War on Want, said: “British retailers must be heartless in exploiting overseas workers who grow their flowers. These firms have had years to keep their ethical commitments on decent pay and conditions for their suppliers. If Gordon Brown really cares about poor people, he should legislate against this corporate abuse.”

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