Happy Valentine’s Day! Pardon me, but I must interrupt the path of Cupid’s arrow to talk about something that will certainly be considered unsexy today; labour rights, women’s labour rights specifically. I know, us pesky activists and our high horses, right? Why can we not let a day of wanton consumerism couched as portrayals of love go by without our “woke” commentary?
Well you see, chances are today you will be giving or receiving a bouquet of roses. So this conversation simply cannot wait. You will most likely be over the moon when the flowers arrive, your lover’s love for you manifest through this singular act. I am here to tell you that the beauty of the roses you receive obscures the grit and hardship that goes into growing them.
The women, who make up almost 80 per cent of the workforce on flower farms, bear the brunt of nurturing these flowers. They nurse callused hands and aching backs as they work extra hours to beat targets set for Valentine’s Day. The majority of jobs available to them are low cadre with low pay. Gender biases within these work spaces impose unwritten rules about which jobs women can apply for and which are off limits.
For the work they do, workers make anywhere between Shs90,000 and Shs300,000, for six days a week, eight hours a day of gruelling work. It is, therefore, very likely that what you are forking out for one perishable, inedible item today, is the equivalent of or more than this woman’s wages for the month.
In 2014, flowers contributed almost $40 million to Uganda’s GDP. The expectation would, therefore, be that this would translate into better wages and dignified work for people in the sector. Not for women. Women subsidise value chains around the world, working in the garment industry, assembly plants and flower farms, among many precarious jobs.
The common thread here is the devaluation of women’s labour and the exploitation of their lack of power and opportunity. Studies have shown that work regarded as typically feminine is considered of low value and is remunerated as such, or not remunerated at all.
Women are seen to be performing “unskilled” labour, the use of the descriptor “unskilled” deliberately deployed to justify the low wages and the idea that this work can be done by anybody and that it is not important. The devaluation of care work that women perform, like childcare, looking after the sick and other domestic chores, is testament to this. With the value assigned to this work eroded, even when it is done professionally, for example by domestic workers, it is nearly impossible to negotiate wages commensurate with the work performed. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that the Minimum Wage Bill received a lukewarm embrace from the general public, beyond the anxiety of a flailing economy, was the resistance to the idea of paying domestic workers a fair wage. “Even them? We’d rather not.”
Of course, this is not the experience for all flower farms in Uganda. Some have undertaken admirable and gender-sensitive reforms to make the workplace more accommodating to women. But there is a lot that needs to be done. In the absence of legislation to protect workers, coupled with runaway capitalism where people are willing to exploit every loophole available to increase their bottom line, workers are left to the wolves.
“So what could I do?” you may ask. It will sound counter intuitive, but start by paying your domestic worker a fair wage. With that act, you will acknowledge the value of women’s labour and perhaps feel more inclined to advocate for other women in precarious jobs. Also, as you buy those flowers today, think about what a minimum wage would do. Let’s put the bill back on the agenda and get the president to sign it.
Ms Eryenyu is the research advocacy and movement building manager at Akina Mama wa Afrika.