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During the first-ever Living Wage Lab webinar, participants and panellists agreed that COVID-19 asks for smart government measures and innovative business initiatives to support the workers in the agri-food sector.

On Tuesday 13 May, 45 participants joined panellists Olav Boenders (Wagagai), Paulien Osse (WageIndicator Foundation) and Virginia Munyua (Hivos East Africa) online to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the workers in the horticulture. The current stressed the need for living wages and living incomes. “Workers need higher wages so they can save for events like this”, said Virginia Munya during the panel discussion.

A rapid impact assessment commissioned by Hivos showed that many workers in the Kenyan flower sector have lost their jobs, are facing food insecurity and suffer greatly psychologically. “The pandemic has been a wakeup call for workers”, said Virginia. “They are not certain what tomorrow holds for them.”

In Uganda, a full lockdown mandated by the government meant that workers were no longer allowed to undertake their daily commute to work. In an attempt to continue operations – and thereby provide income - as much as possible, Wagagai (a large propagation business based in Uganda) housed 500 of its workers on the farm. They provided mattresses and mosquito nets, and followed the COVID-19 health guidelines.

Business initiatives

Because of the lockdown measures and the decline in demand for flowers, many workers have lost their income. “Some of the flower businesses in Uganda were hit immensely by the crisis”, explains Olav Boenders, CEO of Wagagai. The 14 floriculture farms in Uganda, united through the Uganda Flower Export Association, decided to step up and take action. “Together, we’ve raised 80,000 euro”, says Olav. “We made a list of the workers who were sent home without pay. From the 5,000 people working in the Ugandan floriculture, around 400-500 have no income at the moment. So we transferred money to them.”

The importance of smart government measures

National governments also play an important role in curbing the current crisis. When taking measures to combat the health crisis, they shouldn’t overlook the economic repercussions. “Some government measures are negatively impacting people”, said Paulien from WageIndicator, after which she described the example of India, where a full lockdown has made people living below in the poverty line struggle to acquire food. Also when it comes to future measures and regulations, governments should make sure to take all aspects into account. “People are more afraid of the coming reforms than for COVID-19”, Paulien said, based on an ongoing survey WageIndicator has been conducting since the end of March.

Since mid-March, the government of Kenya has implemented tax relief for anybody who earns less than 210 euro per month; however for someone working for a minimum wage, the tax reduction doesn’t make a big difference. Furthermore, horticulture workers are not considered as a vulnerable group that needs protection, despite their low income, which means they don’t benefit from many other measures that are being taken such as the Cash Transfer Programme.

Horticulture after COVID-19

The session ended on a positive note with the three speakers sharing their aspirations and predictions for the future. Virginia argued that the expansion of social safety nets is crucial for workers to keep their head above water when crisis hit. Paulien went even a step further and advocated for an universal basic income, where everyone can have a decent life regardless of place of birth or level of education. They all agreed that we are in need for a more fair distribution of wealth. Olav explained: “We don’t need that much money to make a difference, the Fair Cents Pilot has showed that. We need to get the explosion of margins under control, then we can do it. We need to find a systematic solution.”