This February 14th, while the majority of my girlfriends will be out with their significant others, my good friend Judit and I will be having dinner for two at a hip and trendy restaurant located in downtown Chicago. A few days ago, Judit wrote me a nice Facebook comment that said, "I just want to know if you prefer roses or chocolates…?"Millions of U.S. consumers will be asking themselves that very same question in the next few days. Luckily for Judit, she has a friend who can tell her a thing or two about the labor rights violations and exploitation of workers on the flower plantations of Colombia and in the cocoa industry of West Africa.
If your sweetheart is unfortunately allergic to chocolate like I am (what a drag) or she or he simply prefers flowers, here are a few things you should keep in mind as you are preparing to buy your loved one a special bouquet this Valentine’s Day:
While the flower industry does provide many rural people in Colombia with jobs (over 100,000 directly, about 95,000 indirectly), it is also an industry that makes it nearly impossible for workers to organize for better working conditions. According to recent figures from flower worker unions on the ground, only a little less than 500 flower workers currently belong to a union. The organization of independent flower unions, Untraflores, started 2009 with seven independent unions encompassing about 450 workers and finished the year with only four unions still actively representing workers.The Colombian flower industry has undoubtedly been affected by the economic crisis. However, flower plantation owners have seemingly found new ways to take advantage of the economic crisis to exploit their workers and then some. Out of the three plantations that closed in 2009 where Untraflores’ unions had worker representation, all three owners claimed bankruptcy and/or economic hardship and all three owners refused to pay workers their back wages and their rightfully due severance pay.
Flower workers took to the streets in protest and in September almost 400 workers organized a sit-in and took the plantation for a month! In that case, the company filed for bankruptcy and used that as their excuse not to pay workers, but Untraflores, with the use of Colombian law, was able to acquire some of the income from the sale of the machinery and land to pay workers the majority of what they were owed.
It was a bittersweet victory for the flower workers of Untraflores who fought to the very end defending their rights not only as workers, but also as human beings, yet they ultimately lost their job with the plantation closing.
Their struggle is far from being over. Aside from the long workdays and impossible quotas, flower workers are exposed to high levels of toxic pesticides and fungicides. Pesticides are sometimes sprayed while workers are on the job, directly on to their bodies. Women flower workers, who make up about 66% of the workforce, have higher rates of birth defects, miscarriage, and sterilization.
Colombian flower workers are in no way asking for a boycott of Colombian flowers. Their jobs rely on U.S. consumers like you. They just want you to be a responsible and socially conscious consumer and support their cause for better treatment and working conditions. So while flower workers in Colombia are delicately cutting your flowers and making $8.25 a day, make sure you and your sweetie show your appreciation when you’re purchasing that $19.99 bouquet of flowers (with a free vase!).
What about Fair Trade and other certified flowers?
In some stores, including Whole Foods and Costco, you may find flowers certified as socially and environmentally-responsible by Veriflora, Rainforest Alliance, or Fair Trade (Transfair USA). Unfortunately, flower worker unions in Colombia report that there are problems with some of the flower growers in Colombia who have been certified for all these labels. Colombian flower worker unions therefore say that certification by these groups does not at this point assure better respect for labor rights in the production of flowers than from other companies. Groups like USLEAP are working with certification groups to address workers concerns. Check out USLEAP’s Views on Fair Trade, other certification programs, and consumer power.
This Valentine's Day in an effort to continue supporting flower workers in Colombia, USLEAP has designed four beautiful Valentine's Day ecards, each featuring stories of struggle and victories and a photo of Colombian flower workers.
So if you are still debating about what to get your loved one this weekend, how about you help flower workers build a movement that will provide a just and fair income to feed their family, a safe working environment that will improve their working conditions, and the right to organize without fear of repression.
P.S. In Colombia and in many other countries, February 14th is celebrated as the International Day of the Flower Worker! Hooray!