By Carol Hansen, Intern, USLEAP
Corporación CACTUS, a non-governmental organization in Colombia that supports cut-flower industry workers, first introduced the Day of the Flower Workers in 2001 to recognize and honor their rights. This February 14th, I think it’s important to remember not only all flower workers, but also the women of the flower industry. The flower industry in Colombia (and Ecuador) has long been criticized for the exploitation of its workers. It is important to remember that out of nearly 110,000 workers employed by the Colombia cut-flower industry, 66% are women.
Women are disproportionately affected by work in the flower industry, particularly due to the widespread disrespect for women’s rights, exposure to high levels of pesticides, unsafe working conditions, and violations of the right to organize. Men are the ones promoted to supervisor and managerial positions, even though women make up more than half the workforce. Women are not given opportunities for advancement and remain at entry-level positions. They are forced to move from plantation to plantation under short-term contracts, whereas men are provided training and usually work on long-term contracts.
Flower industry advocates like corporations and Colombian banks go so far as to describe women workers as “a ready supply of cheap female labor for sorting and packing the flowers,” (from an industry guidebook written in 1993). It is also a common belief to assume that women are more ideal to work with flowers since, for some reason, women have more nimble fingers and provide more delicate handling of flowers. Due to the repetitive and rapid motions of working with flowers, many women develop stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.
About a third of women flower workers are single mothers, who receive minimum wage (about $250 per month) in order to provide for their families. This is especially mind boggling considering the large surplus companies make on the amount of flowers one woman produces per day, which is between $600-800. In a 2003 study by Corporación CACTUS, women flower workers reported that their income did not cover their basic needs. In the case of single mothers, these women must combine their paid work at the plantation with unpaid domestic work.
Sexual harassment is widespread. A study of women flower workers in Ecuador found that more than 55% of women workers had been victims of some form of sexual harassment, and only 5% had filed complaints. Many women do not file reports because they are afraid of being fired, are threatened, or are simply unaware of their legal rights.
Women applying for a job have often been forced to take a mandatory pregnancy test, which is an illegal practice and can be described as maternity-based discrimination. Employers will administer pregnancy tests in order to avoid providing pregnancy leave, and workers who become pregnant are often dismissed or do not have their contracts renewed. Under Colombian law, women are entitled to temporary placement in a less risky position, and to paid maternity leave.
These violations within the flower industry in Colombia not only affect the work environment within the walls of the greenhouses, but they reinforce the way of life within the communities surrounding them. A life of poverty, inequality, displacement and political violence are very real issues women must face. The flower industry views women as the more vulnerable members of society, whom plantation owners think they can more easily exploit and push around, but many women are fighting back! It’s not surprising that many women flower workers are also trade unionists and union leaders.
This February 14th, recognize and honor the rights of flower workers, but don’t forget to recognize and honor the rights of women!