Kenya’s fair trade flowers are prized for their abundance and beauty, but they don’t appear immune to trouble. On some farms, laborers complaint of difficult work conditions, poor living standards and a lack of support from the industry.

A two-hour drive west from Kenya’s bustling capital of Nairobi, the city of Naivasha, with its population of about 200,000, lies perched on the shore of its namesake lake.

This is home to most of Kenya’s flower farms. It is also home for Lydia Wanjiku Matimu, who worked as a flower harvester at Wildfire Kenya Ltd, a Fairtrade certified farm, for the last six years. Matimu had high hopes that the promise of a more ethical agricultural workplace would improve her life.

Instead, she has suffered two miscarriages. She blames chemicals used on the farm.

“What caused the miscarriages is the chemical they sprayed,” Matimu said in an interview. Just before her first miscarriage, she said, “they sprayed sulfur and we were told to go pick the flowers before the recommended time.”

This was not how Fair Trade was supposed to work. Fair Trade promises consumers that by buying Fair Trade certified products, they are fighting exploitation and improving the world–one purchase at a time. Worker wages are supposed to “fulfill basic household needs,” while Fair Trade prohibits use of “the most harmful chemicals” on crops, according to the organization’s website. The organization also promises that workers are treated equally, however the health care coverage provided the laborer in the plantation–who is most directly exposed to danger–offers but a fraction of the benefits that protect more senior workers.

Despite repeated invitations, Wildfire Kenya Ltd, declined to comment about Matimu’s story. The company’s web page lists educational and sports activities the farm sponsors for employees. The list does not detail steps the farm takes to protect worker health.

In a written statement, Fairtrade International said Matimu’s story has triggered an internal investigation under the organization’s Protection Policy and Procedures for Children and Vulnerable Adults.

“Fairtrade ensures that if we receive information on any violation of the rights of children or vulnerable adults, we take immediate action to protect the impacted individuals.” Fairtrade spokesman Eric Fichtl, in an emailed reply to questions from 100Reporters and Journalists For Transparency.

Fichtl added that “Fairtrade standards have strict minimum labour requirements, including for safety measures and pesticide handling, in addition to prohibitions against child labour, forced labour, freedom of association, and discrimination … These apply to all workers, whether permanent or temporary, migrant or local, subcontracted or directly employed.”

Matimu said she was well into her second trimester when she had her first miscarriage. She then lost her second fetus after three months of pregnancy.

“That day, they sprayed sulfur at around 8 and it is supposed to be left for 8-12 hours. But before that time elapsed, they got an order for flowers,“ Matimu said. Expectant mothers are usually given light duties on the farm, but Matimu said that that day, she was ordered to the greenhouse to harvest the flowers.

She collapsed shortly after leaving the greenhouse and woke up in the flower farm clinic, Matimu said. She didn’t learn of her miscarriage until she sought medical treatment at a hospital in neighboring North Kinangop.

Lydia Wanjiku Matimu, a mother of three, worked at Wildfire Kenya, a Fairtrade certified flower farm in Kenya. She suffered two miscarriages following exposure to agro-chemicals during her pregnancy, she said.

Matimu said she complained to her employers at Wildfire, but they did not accept responsibility for the miscarriages, and refused to investigate her claim. Devasted by the losses of her pregnancies, Matimu quit her job, putting her family into financial hardship. She remains unemployed.

Fairtrade’s Fichtl said the organization maintains procedures that member cooperatives and farms are supposed to follow when laborers have complaints about health and safety conditions. “Under our protection procedures, Fairtrade International will be conducting an assessment of the allegation and following up on it.”

Flowers became the first non-food item certified by Fairtrade in 2001. Globally, there are now 55 producer organizations growing Fairtrade certified flowers, a majority of them in Kenya.

Growing demand from European consumers has led to a boom in Fairtrade flower sales. Around 640 million stems were sold between 2013 and 2014, a 5 percent increase from the same time a year earlier. According to Fairtrade International, the cut flower industry has blossomed into Kenya’s second most important export commodity, following tea, for a total value of about $424 million. The European Union is the principal export market.

Temperate climate means that Kenya’s floriculture industry can produce all year, and thus the country ranks as the world’s fifth-largest exporter of cut flowers. Of exports to Europe, 44 percent originate from Fairtrade certified farms. Despite growing demand for their product, poor pay remains a problem for Kenyan flower farm workers. According to a 2014 report sponsored by Fairtrade International, the expected living wage for flower farms in Naivasha is $172 a month. Over the past decade, real wages (adjusted for inflation) have decreased.

Judy Atieno, a mother of two, resigned from one of the flower farms in Naivasha after having three miscarriages. Photo by Maurice Oniang'o.
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Matimu said she knows of other laborers who have reported illnesses they believe are related to their work. And complaints go beyond health, to salaries that do little to lift them out of poverty.

The complaints in Kenya echo what academic and human rights researchers have found on farms in eastern Africa that produce fair trade commodities. A fundamental problem, one team of researchers said, is that in setting basic pay standards, organizations like Fairtrade International used faulty research on basic conditions and prevailing wages among workers in farms in low-income nations. A principal failure was to omit seasonal and migrant wage workers in surveys aimed at gleaning information about wage needs among family members who provide the labor for their own small farms.

“The majority of these studies do not even attempt to construct samples of seasonal and permanent wage workers producing Fairtrade certified export commodities. On the rare occasions when wageworkers are included in Fairtrade research, information on these workers is often collected from lists of wage workers provided, and sometimes selected, by employers or by officially sanctioned worker representatives. These lists may well be censored and are certainly unlikely to contain all casual workers, let alone recently dismissed or disgruntled workers,” wrote the authors of Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda, published in 2014 by the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Inside one small house of farm worker, a sole bed sheet separates the living area and the bedroom. A television sits in one corner, a make-shift kitchen in the other. The worker, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals, welcomed visitors into the house he shares with his wife and two sons.

The farm worker is employed by Oserian, a Fairtrade-certified farm known for its roses. The man earns net pay of $140 a month, and he doesn’t see how the Fairtrade label has helped his family’s standard of living.

“I have been struggling for a while. I have worked at Oserian for 10 years but I am not benefitting. I just have debts,“ he said.

Oserian contributes to his sons’ education. The company provides grants ranging from $150 to $300, according to a child’s academic performance. He receives $300 for both boys–well short of the $1,100 he must spend for tuition.

Oserian representatives declined repeated requests for interviews to discuss the conditions described by this laborer and others. On its website Oserian says only that it is “a Fairtrade farm, which means we make sure our employees have good working conditions and opportunities. Further afield, we’ve funded a number of social projects – like the drilling of boreholes away from Lake Naivasha, so nearby communities can access water more easily.”

The laborer said the farm used to supply useful items such as t-shirts and shoes. They could also access advances of cash and gas, which were repaid in installments. He says such benefits have been scrapped.

Unfair Trade was produced in collaboration with 100Reporters, with support from Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organization.