Nora Ferm, Program Director - Fairness in Flowers Campaign, International Labor Rights Fund
Despite the clean sweep in Congress, the Republicans are hoping to squeeze through a trade deal with Colombia that provides no guarantees for workers' rights or protection against the discrimination suffered by women workers in many industries, including flowers.
In Ecuador, meanwhile, the proposed free trade agreement with the US is similarly damaging for workers, but currently has farther to go before being approved. A recent Washington Post article attributed the closure of the Dole flower plantations in Ecuador to that country’s failure to conclude free trade agreement talks with the United States. This is completely inaccurate. Dole simultaneously closed two farms in Colombia, affecting three times as many workers as in Ecuador, and Colombia is close to completing its trade agreement with the US.
The preferential trade deal that Ecuador has had with the US until now may have increased employment in the local flower industry, but those jobs are characterized by minimum-wage salaries, forced overtime, sexual harassment and abuse, pesticide poisoning, and illegal pregnancy testing. The proposed new Colombia-US and Ecuador-US free trade agreements do not include any real protections for workers’ fundamental labor rights, and would only serve to further entrench such precarious and inhumane conditions. Nevertheless, on Nov 10, President Bush spoke with President Uribe of Colombia and reassured him that he fully supports the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement, which will be signed on November 22nd.
Independently of what happens with the free trade agreements, Dole's irresponsible conduct in Colombia and Ecuador is cause for serious concern. 850 workers were fired at Dole's two plantations in Ecuador - less than a month after the announcement, these farms were closed and the workers sent home.
In Colombia, Dole's investment in flowers is much more significant. Dole controls 20% of the flower export from that country. Despite tough odds, Colombian workers have also been more successful at organizing Dole plantations. Workers at Splendor Flowers formed an independent union, Sintrasplendor, in November 2004, with the support of Untraflores, an independent sector-wide flower workers union. After the inception of the union, workers reported that Dole conducted a vigorous anti-union campaign that included bringing in a company-backed union, firing union leaders, challenging the union's legal registration with the Colombian government, and refusing to reinstate fired union leaders despite court orders to do so.
It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that one of the two plantations
that Dole chose to close is Splendor-Corzo. Corzo is the larger of the
two farms at Splendor Flowers, and the one where the Sintrasplendor
union is stronger. Dole justifies the closure of Splendor-Corzo by
saying that it has “historically produced products with
limited/seasonal demand and have high costs”. However, in 2001 Splendor
Flowers was #2 on a list of the most successful flower companies in
Colombia, with 19 million dollars in sales. Dole has not provided
evidence that Splendor is a losing enterprise. It appears that the
plantation closure is a response to the growing support for
Splendor management has already started to call workers and offer them compensation to get them to resign. They get a 15% bonus if they resign early. 300 workers have accepted the offer, but the union is encouraging workers not to accept defeat so easily. In the meantime, Dole has asked the Colombian Ministry of Social Protection for permission to fire the remaining workers.