1 May 2020

International Labour Day: Recognizing the importance of collaboration between union representatives and employers in Uganda

In Uganda, where around half of flower and plant production is Fairtrade certified, dialogue and collaboration between a trade union and employers has resulted in better working conditions and more rights for the employees in an entire sector. Now, as COVID-19 has left horticulture in Uganda on the brink of collapse, this collaboration is more essential than ever.

Uganda is in a complete lockdown. Sales of cut flowers, the bulk of which are exported to Europe for auction, declined by up to 90 percent at the beginning of the crisis. There is insufficient government protection for agricultural workers, as workers receiving a monthly wage are excluded from government food support and cannot access their pension savings.

Under these circumstances, Uganda's Horticultural, Industrial, Service Providers and Allied Workers' Union (UHISPAWU), the trade union representing workers in the horticultural sector, is fighting to protect flower farm workers from falling into poverty and hunger. Thousands of workers are at home on paid or unpaid leave, some of them with no income or other support.

”UHISPAWU, under the leadership of Janepher Nassali, a woman who moved up from being a flower picker to becoming the union’s general secretary, has become an influential voice and bargaining agent for workers in the Ugandan floriculture sector. The union has negotiated collective agreements benefiting thousands of workers and has helped to save numerous jobs during the Corona crisis,” explains Wilbert Flinterman, Senior Advisor Workers’ Rights and Trade Union Relations at Fairtrade International.

Union representatives have been travelling from farm to farm, urging growers to maintain staff through work-sharing schemes, pay cuts and to implement strict safety protocols, including physical distancing, provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), accessible soap and water in all work areas and union access to health and safety inspection at all times. Employers have mostly been collaborating with the union. Some have come up with their own schemes to help workers who are currently not working by, for example, providing food and small financial payments. They are also sending workers on unpaid leave but maintaining their employment status until the situation improves.

“During this crisis we are showing that employers and trade unions are able to work together and that there is a good understanding both ways,” explains Olav Boenders, Managing Director of Wagagai, a Fairtrade certified plant propagation farm. “In Wagagai, we have always worked very closely with unions but, as a sector, what I am witnessing is that more and more farms are working closely together with the unions now too. The attitude from both sides has changed. Trade unions have also proved that they understand the extremely difficult situation that companies are facing and together we are trying to find creative solutions.”

Creating a culture of dialogue and collaboration between trade unions and employers

UHISPAWU, a member of the National Organization of Trade Unions (NOTU) has seen steady increases in membership over the last five years. The horticultural sector, which employs over 8000 people in Uganda, has seen a boom in recent decades, becoming a source of employment for rural women all over the country. UHISPAWU successfully advocated for women’s labour rights and, in 2015, secured the highest wage increase in the cut flower sector. “The strength of workers is togetherness in a trade union. The strength of Trade Unions is in numbers, but social dialogue with employers and government at all times is equally important’ says Janepher Nassali, UHISPAWU’s General Secretary, to explain the achievements of the last years.

Trade union rights receive strong protection under the Fairtrade Standard for Hired Labour. Six of Uganda’s flowers and plant farms, representing about half of the country’s sector, are Fairtrade certified. Employers must sign a Freedom of Association protocol prior to certification, and must publically display a Right to Unionize Guarantee in the workplace. In addition, employers are also required to meet with elected worker representatives every three months for a dialogue about workplace issues.

UHISPAWU’s success in increasing wages, in combination with the introduction of the Fairtrade Floor Wage for certified farms, has meant that salaries for workers have risen from 32 USD to 59 USD per month. “It is laudable that certified farms in Uganda have supported these wage increases, even though some have struggled to sell much of their volumes under Fairtrade terms in the highly competitive market environment in which they operate,” said Flinterman.

Sales needed to save livelihoods

Fairtrade announced that certified farms can spend up to 100 percent of their Fairtrade Premium to provide workers with cash or in-kind benefits to help them through the current pandemic. For those farms with robust Fairtrade sales, and thus with high amounts of Fairtrade Premium funds at their disposal, this could substantially help relieve the situation of workers for some time. However, Boenders said that competition for markets is fierce and even before the pandemic some companies were struggling to stay profitable.

“No matter what we all do, if the situation doesn’t change soon and governments in the North do not allow the international horticultural market to resume sales soon, then many farms will have to close down and thousands of people across East Africa will lose their jobs and will fall into poverty. I hope that, during this crisis, governments and consumers in Europe and other rich countries will not forget about the people in Africa and other developing countries, whose governments cannot provide a social welfare system to fall back on,” said Boenders.