Fighting for women’s labour rights in the workers’ committee

Felista has a delightful personality. She smiles, greets and is eager to explain and to give whatever information needed about her work. It is clear in her clarity and swiftness to answer, that she has mastered the ins and outs of her job’s task, and that of the others. Felista has worked at the farm for nine years now – which explains why she is very well versed with the work.

Felista grew up with her mother and father, peasant farmers in Mubende District. She went to school until only Primary Seven when decided to drop out. A decision she attributes to the tiresome long journey to a Universal Primary Education school. “We would walk six miles from home to school. Sometimes I would be sent back home as a school fees defaulter. I got tired of it all and left in search of work and a better living.” She would later find work as a domestic house help in Buloba town, Wakiso District. This is where the farm she works at is located. It is where her home is too.

Felista worked for a couple who she says was anything but kind. “They treated me poorly and paid me peanuts. Sometimes the meagre pay came way past its due date, other times it didn’t come at all.” The couple had set up a Pentecostal church and asked that she start singing and drumming there, once they discovered her skill set in the activities. A request she immediately declined. “I am Catholic, so I didn’t want to be a part of their worship.” That is when she left and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law.

The journey to the flower farm.

In 2011, Felista who at the time was staying with her elder sister decided that this dependence was not for her anymore. “I didn’t have a job, yet I had my own necessities. I had heard that there was a flower farm in the area. So, one morning in August of 2011, I began to walk towards here, asking anyone I met for further directions because I was not certain where exactly the farm was.” When young men on a passing pickup truck which she would later discover had been headed to her destination offered her a ride, she took it, but almost immediately asked to alight. She says there was no road by then, only paths and a lot of forest, most of which is still surrounds the farm establishment. “There were also frequent murders being committed. Dead bodies would be found in the forest and shrubs on several mornings, so I rethought my decision to get on the truck.”

Felista got to the farm at a time when it was in dire need of workers. She was led to the office and handed a bucket and a contract on arrival. “There was no application system like it is today, we simply started and were assigned supervisors.” The supervisors then were unsparing and did not stand for any errors from even the workers like Felista who were new on the job. But one week into her start of work, the farm management organized a three-weeks training at the headquarters in Mukono District. During that time, they would be transported to and fro and provided lunch too. “The workers with whom I began have all left. Only one remains. Many left during the training.” On why she stayed in spite of implacable supervisors and the work that her fellow trainees found too hectic: “I had no other way. I did not have a job, yet I wanted my life situation to change.”

The job

9 years later, Felista not only picks flowers at the farm, she is also on the workers union committee which they began to protect their interests. This position requires her to speak to the management committee members on behalf of her fellow workers. Some of the issues that arise include; medical, operational and remuneration complaints. From Monday to Saturday, the company transportation van picks her up from a stage near her home which is in the same Buloba town of Wakiso district. Once at her work premises, she and the others change into their overall coats, whose colors each represents the stage of flower farming to which the workers are allocated. They wear gumboots too, with socks that they purchase themselves. They then have breakfast and should be at their work stations by 8:00 am. Within 8 hours of a day, they are required to pick 6,000 small flower shoots in bunches 120 groups of 50 flowers each. This is the number of flower shoots per package that is exported to Holland. Each harvest is put on a weighing scale to determine the accurateness of each individual’s harvest – the target number here is 40 – 45 grams. The workers don’t always meet the target. “Sometimes flowers are not as many in the green houses, and they (supervisors) can see that. So they accept an allowance of some flowers less, say 3000 to 4000 flowers. But if one is consistently not meeting their targets even during the inaugural 3 months training, they are issued a warning, sometimes laid off.”

 

In an 8 hour workday, workers are required to pick 6,000 small flower shoots in bunches 120 groups of 50 flowers each.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Challenges

Felista is most challenged by a constant lack of money and inconsiderate managers. “It (the money) never adds up. I am constantly broke and sometimes the salaries come late, without explanation. Yet we need it, we have to eat, we have kids to take care of. The statutory cuts (NSSF and PAYE) also bring the final pay even lower.” Recently when salaries delayed, Felista and other committee members presented their fellow workers’ dissatisfaction to management. “Now committee members are being accused of instigating the rest. There is a notice on the board that those who were striking might be penalized with a salary cut.”

Despite these monetary challenges, Felista has some job benefits and has made some moves. She rents a house together with her husband with a UGX 20,000 (USD 5) rent allowance that the job affords her. Her benefits include a daily UGX 2,000 (USD 0.54) pay for a meal at lunch. And in 9 years, with her UGX 8,500 (USD 2.2) per day pay, Felista Nakavuma has bought a piece of land on which she hopes to build her own home.

Family

The house in which Felista lives is one-roomed, central to a line of other similar house units. Inside, a large curtain separates what looks like the bedroom from the living room area. Left to a couch in which she sits holding her son, is a LED TV and a free-to-air decoder. These, she says she has bought recently, after attending the Akina Mama wa Afrika training and being encouraged to save. “Every day I walked by the shop from work and saw this TV. I knew I wanted it, but I didn’t have enough money. The training was the push I needed. I saved up and last month I bought everything at UGX 330,000 (USD 89). Now I am able to catch up in the news and the shows I like.”

Felista saved up to buy the television set she now enjoys in her free time. She is pictured here with her 2 year old.

Her 2 year old son, Andrew has recently left the daycare at the farm. Now she leaves him with the old women neighbor. “I buy some sugar, rice and milk which can be prepared to him to feed on during the day.” Her husband, a casual laborer, doesn’t always have jobs, which she finds frustrating. “Sometime he goes weeks without getting work, which means that every expense falls on me. Yet it would be easier if we shared the costs.”

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