Thursday, August 25, 2005

A sledgehammer to miss the nut

In August last year, we told a sorry little tale about how small horticultural producers in Kenya were being drowned in EU red tape and were simply unable to cope.

Their problem was and is that, in order to continue exporting to EU member states – their main outlet - they had to conform with new rules on quality audits, which included the traceability amendment 178/2005. All exports into the EU had to be traceable to the grower.

This law and the numerous, mandatory codes of practice being imposed on the industry were pushing production costs higher and eroding investor profits and squeezing the small producers out of business. Only the larger growers had the resources (and skills) to deal with the paperwork and, out of the 200 or so registered growers supplying the export market, only about six big companies were expected to survive.

Now, at least, according to The Nation in Nairobi, earnings from flower exports have been growing by leaps and bounds and exporters are smiling all the way to the banks.

Kenya is the leading exporter of flowers to Europe, commanding 25 percent of total sales. It beats Israel and Colombia which are second and third respectively. Every year, at least extra 500 acres are put under flower farms - arguably the fastest expansion rate in the world. And, clearly, the surviving growers are coping with the paperwork.

So far so good, one might say, except that far from smiling, many of the workers are weeping all the way to the hospitals. Some have been forced into early retirement prompted by ill health resulting from handling unsafe chemicals. In one of the major flower-growing areas, more than 50,000 flower farm labourers live in the area with their families, a distressing number of them half-blind, permanently scarred or hairless as a result of their contact with toxic chemicals.

The Nation reports that animals have not been spared either. Early this year, fumigation chemicals at one of the farms were mixed with water but the lethal mixture found its way out of the farm, into the wild and, eventually into Lake Naivasha. Fishermen found dead fish floating on the water. Two hippos and about 12 cows belonging to Maasai herdsmen also died after drinking the water.

Not far from the labourers dwellings is a clinic set up for them. One of the doctors there says most the cases he encounters range from chronic bronchitis, breathing problems, severe headaches, loss of hair and acute chest pains - maladies he attributes to overexposure to dangerous substances.

Workers complain of inadequate or non-existent training, shortage or absence of protective equipment, lack of labelling and warnings, and the use of banned substances. They also talk of a hostile management culture where workers who make complaints are immediately fired. One worker says, "The best thing in the circumstances is to keep quiet and pray to God". The 50-plus owners of the farms have a mechanism where workers can easily be blacklisted in all the farms.

A storekeeper tells of his experience over four years when, he says, he has often handled unlabelled chemicals. When inspectors from the Pest Control Products Board come checking, he claims, workers are directed to hide the unlabelled bottles in a manager's house.

Official agencies like the Board, supposed to monitor the health of workers, are proving toothless so, asks The Nation, who will come to the assistance of the affected workers?

Well, clearly not EU inspectors. A manager at Homegrown Flowers, one of the largest flower farms in Kenya, which sits on more than 25,000 acres, says that vigorous audits and inspection exercises conducted by independent experts mainly from Europe have found out that the flower farms comply with the EU's hygiene rules and the European Good Agricultural Practices. Clearly, the right paperwork has been filled in, somewhat confirming our impression that the paper, not practice is the key, as far as the buyer is concerned.

However, the indifference to worker safety, and the tolerance of highly dangerous chemicals contrasts strongly with the EU’s paranoia over the relatively benign DDT, which the Ugandans want to reintroduce to control malaria.

How typical of the EU to over-react when there is no significant threat and to sit idly by when there is real harm to health – a classic example of the sledgehammer to miss the nut.


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