By Lupita Aguila, Program Coordinator, USLEAP
While many Americans celebrated St. Valentine’s Day with their loved ones, flower workers who were working on average up to 12 hours a day leading up to the holiday met this past Wednesday evening at their union office in Facatativa, Colombia, a 90-minute drive from Bogota, to talk about various issues at their flower plantations. I had the opportunity to meet these workers and hear their stories that contradict the image that the flowers growers association has been marketing in the U.S. this Valentine’s Day. Thirty-five women and men from 6 unions gathered for two hours discussing horrid working conditions and company violations on each and every plantation that produce specifically for the U.S. market for Valentine´s Day. Among their complaints, these flower workers are subjected not only to 12-hour work days, but late payment of wages, little or no access to healthcare for themselves and their families, exploitation of subcontracted workers, and lack of freedom of association.
With the high demand for flowers during this time, companies often promote a “bonus” for workers who are interested in working from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. A few of these workers have yet to see these bonuses and it is more than likely that they are not the only ones. The need for extra income is very common among flower workers, especially because many of them are getting paid only the minimum wage of around $230 dollars per month. However, there are certain payment subsidies for healthcare and pensions that are required by law which often leave workers with only 40% of their salaries to feed and provide basic necessities to their families.
Edwin, who has worked in the flower sector for 13 years, told how he was recently sanctioned for 15 days without pay because the tractor he was operating broke. The company stated the machine should have been off at the moment of the incident and later made all the tractor operators on the plantation sign a contract making them economically responsible for paying the damages of broken machinery under their care. This is only one form in which the companies unjustly treat their workers. A few of the women workers attending the union meeting said they are in major need of healthcare, but their company in many occasions has not allowed them to take time off to go to a doctor’s appointment. “There is a cooperative clinic in Facatativa and Madrid, but when they give us our prescriptions, they first have to go through the company for payment, which increases the time it takes for us to actually get our medication,” said Aide, a flower worker at a plantation in Benilda. In fact, many of the illnesses and diseases are treated onsite at these plantations, but the companies will set up “therapy sessions” up to two hours after the workers have finished their work day. Other cooperative clinics will tell workers that the company, who is required by law to pay into a healthcare pension that comes from worker salaries, has failed to pay and therefore cannot treat them because there are no funds available at the time.
Facatativa, which is home to a large number of flower workers, hosted this year’s celebration for International Day of the Flower Worker, organized by the union Untraflores, this past Saturday, February 14th. Every year, hundreds of flower workers come together on this day to celebrate their hard work, their contribution to the Colombian and American economies, and make plans for the coming year to fight for improved wages and conditions. The celebration with about 70 or so workers, which I also attended along with other USLEAP staff, began after 3 p.m. in order to allow attendance from the many workers that still had to work on Valentine´s Day. I heard men and women and their families call for the unification of flower workers, both permanent and temporary, to continue with their struggle for better and just working conditions. Workers also expressed their gratitude to the international support that they have received over the years from USLEAP and other organizations, stating that in many occasions that was enough to keep them going when overall morale was down.
In response to the recent article published by ASOCOFLORES lauding their “socially-responsible” flower plantations in Colombia, it is clear their certification process is masking the working conditions and practices that flower workers experience on a day to day basis. A larger portion of their environmental and social practices focuses solely on environment-friendly standards. While it is important to take into account environmental issues such as pesticides and cleaner soil, U.S. flower consumers cannot ignore the circumstances behind how these flowers have been cut and picked in the name of love.