Royal Van Zanten chemical poisoning common, say workers' rights groups
"That one flower, for a new girlfriend or a father, a colleague's birthday or a grandmother, often means more than all the bunches put together. It's not about the numbers, the colours or sizes. It's about the love and passion that our breeders bring to this experience.
And that also sums up how we work at Royal Van Zanten. Our strength lies not in our size but in our integrity and dedication to the quality of our products and the way we work with each other - with our customers, our colleagues and with our suppliers."
Most of the locals working at Royal Van Zanten, the Dutch flower-exporting firm with greenhouses on the edges of Kampala city at Buloba, possibly have never visited the company website to read those promotional words. They are mainly poor, uneducated women, for whom flowers are not sentimental objects but products of their sweat that put food on the table - some times.
Many of them are paid between Shs100,000 (US$27) to Shs200,000 (US$54)as wages for a month. That is about the price of a low-cost bouquet of twenty red roses in the Dutch capital Amsterdam. Yet the wages the workers at the Royal Van Zanten farm have been worse in the past. Two years ago they ranged between Shs60, 000 (US$16) and Shs108, 000 (US$29) per month.
But many of the local workers do not know that. Most of them cannot read. So they also had no way of knowing that, as they went about arranging the flowers, the company was allegedly exposing them to deadly chemicals.
One of the workers is Sharon Nabitaka, a 22-year old woman who is now ailing in hospital after she suffered poisoning at the farm.
Nabitaka had been hospitalised to Ntinda Hospital in Kampala for about a month ago when we visited her on Nov.25.
Covering herself with a traditional shawl-like garment popularly known as leso, she appears to have run out of words to describe her condition. Instead, she does what most women might say is unthinkable - she throws off the shawl to expose her naked stomach and breasts to us - total strangers.
"I cover myself with this leso not because I don't have clothes but because of my swollen stomach and itching of the skin with any little heat," she explains, "I don't cover myself with anything heavy even at night."
Nabitaka, who has been administered 16 intravenous (IV) drips in the hospital, is one of nine women still hospitalised at Ntinda and Nsambya Hospitals. In total, 122 local workers suffered toxic effects at the farm.
The women are said to have collapsed and rushed to the farm-affiliated clinic called First Care Clinic at nearby Bulenga town. When their condition could not be managed, they were transferred to more specialized hospitals in Kampala.
Jennifer Nassali, the general secretary of the Uganda Horticultural Industrial Services Provider and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU), says the women suffered skin and eye irritations, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and dizziness after being ordered told to cut flowers from greenhouses that had been fumigated with toxic chemicals less 24 hours earlier.
Neighbours to the Buloba farm say they saw many women being rushed to hospital on motorcycles.
"Things were bad here. Every minute, you could see a motorcycle taking a patient to hospital from this flower farm," recalls Wilberforce Friday, a boda-boda motor cycle cyclists who lives and operates near the farm, approximately 14 kilomtres west of Kampala.
"People were running out of that gate as if they were mad, falling helpless on the ground."
"The flower farm violated the safety regulations when they were ordered to work in the greenhouse just few hours after fumigation," Nassali says, adding that legal action against Royal Van Zanten is being considered.
Polyne Nakabugo, another worker battling skin and eye irritation, vomiting and dizziness says the farm does not give workers protective gears in spite of the hazardous chemicals they are exposed to. They only get gumboots and aprons.
Nakubuga had earlier been discharged from hospital after a few days of admission but re-admitted barely two weeks after. Her condition had worsended.
Dr. Boaz Tumuhairwe, who is treating the women at the hospital told The Independent on Nov 26 that various tests have been done both at the facility and at the Lancet Laboratories in South Africa and all confirm that the patients were poisoned.
"The truth is that all these people were poisoned based on the medical evidence," he says. "Some were highly exposed to the chemical than others."
He said it is as a result of the chemical reactions in their bodies that all the patients had severe headaches, abdominal pain, vomiting and nausea, skin infections, and dizziness.
With regard to swollen stomachs, Dr. Tumuhairwe said, all the patients had a lot of gas as a result of the chemical exposure.
He said everything is in control as they to strive to suppress the gas in the patients' stomach ahead of their discharge from the hospital.
The hospital, however, did not carry out further tests to ascertain the exact chemical components that the women were exposed to even as they claimed to have been sickened by metam sodium, a soil fumigant widely used internationally as an agricultural pesticide.
Sam Wambi, the Royal Van Zanten human resource manager in Uganda - who said he could speak on behalf of the company, confirmed to The Independent that the women had been sickened by metam sodium poisoning.
Metam sodium is a "probable human carcinogen" that is highly toxic to mammals, birds and fish, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which categorises the fumigant as a "restricted use pesticide" and recommends a minimum of five working days before workers can re-enter following fumigation.
It can cause death, birth defects, and fetal death, according to Beyond Pesticides, a U.S.-based group.
Anyone using it is advised to wear chemical-resistant coveralls over long-sleeved shirts and trousers, a respirator, chemical resistant head gear, foot-wear plus socks, and gloves. The chemical can kill if it enters the body through the skin.
Sam Wambi said although the company had temporarily discontinued use of metam sodium and instead was steaming its flower beds, use of the chemical would resume after precautions required to be followed when using the pesticide were installed.
Wambi, however, said he could not offer a fuller explanation and referred us to the Country Managing Director, Feico Smit.
But Feico has chosen not to speak and switched off his mobile phone.
Royal Van Zanten has two known flower firms in Uganda - one at Buloba and the other in Namaiba in Mukono, also near Kampala City. Incidents of workers suffering chemical poisoning have occurred at both, according to Mercy Grace Munduru, a senior advocacy officer at the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Uganda). She said the poisoning is being treated as a violation of the human rights of workers.
"We shall be considering legal options to ensure that women who were affected are adequately compensated based on the damages they suffered," she said.
Munduru said the poisoning at Royal Van Zanten is one of the many infringements on the rights of workers that have happened all the time, year in-year out on flower farmers all over the country.
She said FIDA offices has received numerous complaints, ranging from sexual harassments, low pay, and excessive working hours with disregard to the law to harassment of workers among others.
Employees in the flower farms are said to work under tough conditions and can be fired if they complain about safety issues.
She said it is unfortunate that government has not come up with a clear position regarding the welfare of workers not only in the flower flowers but also in other production companies.
Eye on the money
But the Minister for Trade, Industry and Cooperatives, Amelia Kyambadde, does not want to hear of the complaints. On Nov. 17 she dismissed reports that any workers were poisoned at any flower farm.
Instead, she said, when tests were carried out on the Royal Van Zanten workers who entered the green houses at Buloba, they proved negative according to the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.
"Some of the infections reported are not at all related to the insecticide," she said.
She stormed Ntinda Hospital where a section of the company's workers had been hospitalised and said her Ministry will continue to handle the matter jointly with the Ministry of Labour "to ensure that Uganda does not lose the market for her flowers abroad".
The minister accusing the Uganda Horticultural Industrial Services Provider and Allied Workers Union (UHISPAWU) and the FIDA-Uganda lawyers of trying to harm Uganda's flower business.
Horticulture is one of the big businesses in Uganda, providing substantial exports and tax revenue to the government.
Data from the Uganda Flower Exporters Association, which consists of more than 15 companies, shows that in 2014, the country exported 6,810 tonnes of flowers and earned US$38.7 million.
Dr. Tumuhairwe says the affected workers can still work in the flower farms if they wear protective gear.
"For those who have been admitted all this long, we advise them to have a long rest as we keep on recalling them for medical review," she said.
But The Independent has established that many of the women who suffered poisoning have resumed work. And they have not been provided with any new protective gear.