“Madam, tumemwagiwa watoto,” this is what some female workers in Kenya recently told A Head of Human Resource at a flower farm. When loosely translated, the women are saying that, children have been poured on them. The sentiment alludes to the overwhelming spike in child care needs emerging from COVID-19.
The workforce in the flower sector is largely female making about 75%. Majority of them are nursing and infant mothers, some married and others raising their children single handedly. Like in many communities, childcare is mostly perceived as the responsibility of the mother and therefore women workers in flower farms seem to be carrying a greater burden due to the current global pandemic.
Before COVID-19 reared its monstrous head, a day’s routine was quite straightforward for these workers. They would wake up in the morning, get themselves and their children ready, the older ones would proceed to school and the younger ones left in daycare centers as mothers went about their day’s work.
Increased cost of food
When COVID-19 hit Kenya in mid-March, schools were immediately closed; they will remain that way until January 2021. With all children at home, the demand and subsequent cost of food rose, putting pressure on many of the workers’ budgets. “When children are in school, you can plan your budget a lot better because some of them will eat in school. But when all of them are home, it gets hectic because you have to think of how to handle breakfast, lunch and dinner. The more children stay at home the more they eat,” elaborates A. “It impacts mothers more because we are in charge of cooking for the family,” she adds.
For some workers, the going is tougher after their spouses lost their jobs to the pandemic. J, a green house worker, knows this all too well. Her husband worked as a matatu driver, and lost his job after the transport sector was affected following the enforcement of cessation of movement by government to curb the spread of the virus. The family of five now solely depends on J’s earnings from the farm to get by. “I have to ration the food I give to my children and honestly speaking they do not get full. If you hear of an opening for a driver, please let me know. My husband can drive anything,” she says, the despair evident in her voice.
Closure of daycare centers
Nursing and infant mothers heavily depend on daycare facilities. These are centers that provide care for workers’ infant children, allowing them to carry on with their farm work at ease. Some Fairtrade Certified flower farms have invested Fairtrade Premium funds in putting up daycare facilities that provide mothers with a safe environment for their children as they work. One farm runs a daycare facility that accommodates 50 infants, whilst another runs one that accommodates up to 100 infants a day.
However, the pandemic has led to the indefinite closure of most of these facilities due to the risk of exposure, thrusting working mothers into further disarray. Often more affordable than hiring home based care givers, mothers are now troubled with the duty of providing care for their children as they work to make ends meet.
As financial needs continue to pile, quitting is not an option, “so whatever they do, the bigger children have to take care of the younger ones,” explains E from the Human Resource Department at a flower farm. The burden of care has also shifted to often non-committal neighbors or open daycare centers whose safety is questionable at this time. As some women narrate, these options come with significant challenges.
Before the pandemic, J would take her children to a daycare center. Now closed, she finds herself in a predicament, “there are no daycare centers, it is so stressful. Most centers are closed, even the care givers are afraid. I am also afraid of the health status of the care givers and the people who bring their children in and out of those centers, so I cannot risk it,” says the mother of 3.
F is a mother of two children aged 10 years and 9 months. She is forced to leave the infant in the care of her older son, “the boy cannot really take proper care of the child. Sometimes, I come back home only to find that the little one has a nappy rush or has not been fed all day. A few daycare centers in my home area opened because most of us have gone back to work. Some women would rather take their young children there than leave them with their elder siblings who are not mature enough to look after infants,” says the General Worker.
For S, a mother of 3, her financial demands cannot allow her to hire help or take her 2 young children (2 and 1 ½ years old) to a daycare facility which charges her Kshs.1,500 (around $18) for one child per month. For her 2 babies alone, this is a deep cut into her wages as a single mother. As a result, she leaves her young ones under the care of her 7-year-old son, who needs care himself. “I really wish in my heart that I could stop leaving my children home alone. If only I had someone to take care of them. I would feel more comfortable at work. Right now, I go to work but I am never at peace, I keep wondering whether they are safe,” she tells us.
At another flower farm we speak to M who in her best efforts, tries not to break down. She narrates how she lost her only help to the abusive tendencies of her husband. Her sister who only after 2 weeks of staying with her family, was one night kicked out. M and her 6-month-old child were not spared either, forcing them to seek shelter at a neighbor’s house. She sought help elsewhere which would eventually only add to her headache. In one incident, she found her baby with burns which she never got an explanation for. In another, she found him locked up in the house all alone, wailing as he dripped in sweat from the heavy blankets that covered him, all in the care of a neighbor, “I opened the door and took him,” she says, with a painful look in her eyes. M and many other of her workmates remain at the mercy of their neighbors who although cannot guarantee the best care, are the last resort.
Effect on Productivity
The impact of the current difficulties is evident in flower farms where absenteeism has become much more common. “Mothers, especially when dealing with a sick child feel that they need to stay home and take care of their children,” says E. At one flower farm, A (Human Resource Manager) is receiving increased requests for days off, “some take their sick days to take care of children they have left at home. Other times, some will receive information that something is happening with their child and rush home to check on them. It is like a ripple effect, one problem leading to another.” Were daycare centers operational in Fairtrade Certified farms, mothers could count on the safety of their children. Even those with unwell children would enjoy the comfort of knowing that they can check in during breaks.
More support is needed
The accounts of these women emphasize the importance of daycare centers to working mothers. So, what would it take to get these facilities at least within the flower farms, back in operation? “It is not quite clear,” says A. “If children were sleeping at the daycare centers, it would be easy to maintain operations because we can enforce all necessary measures to ensure their safety and mitigate the risk of spreading the disease. However, they have to go back home at the end of the day. They mingle with their family members which makes it complicated because come the next day, you hold them all in one confined space. If one of them comes back infected, it is uncontrollable which is why a facility like that would not really reopen if you asked me. The situation is the same in schools which remain closed,” A adds.
Workers in Fairtrade Certified flower farms have so far received thousands of Euros in food and hygiene material support. This is thanks to the flexibility introduced by Fairtrade International in the use of Fairtrade Premium earned from the sale of Fairtrade flowers, allowing producers to respond to urgent needs related to COVID-19. In addition, 46 flower farms have received disbursements from the Fairtrade COVID-19 Producer Relief Fund, enabling them to step up efforts in ensuring the health and safety of workers. Nonetheless, as conversations with working mothers in Kenyan flower farms reveal, it is hardly the end of the road, in as far as supporting workers to weather the COVID-19 storm goes. The continued purchase of Fairtrade flowers is one way of standing with workers during this challenging time.