By Andrea Pradilla, Trade Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
On September 22, 2010, local labor unions in Colombia announced their decision to the Ministry of Social Protection, during a meeting aimed to resolve the critical conditions of the flower workers in the department of Cundinamarca in Colombia.
According to the Colombian National Union of Flower Workers (UNTRAFLORES), in Finca Guacari, labor rights violations have dramatically increased over the past four months. Finca Guacari is a flower plantation located in Zipaquira near Bogota that primarily exports its production to the U.S. market. The plantation belongs to Sunburst Farms, which proudly announces being a corporate socially and environmentally responsible company.
Workers on this plantation organized a union on September 7, 2010. They were motivated by the company’s 3-month failure to pay their wages, health coverage charges, pension fees, and other benefits. After forming the union, seven members of Sintraguacari—the newly created union—were illegally fired in what constitutes a clear retaliation against workers and unions in the cut flower industry.
Under these circumstances, on September 18, Sintraguacari decided to go on strike in defense of their labor rights and to protest the unfair dismissal of seven of the union’s members. While these rights are recognized by domestic and international legislations, their enforcement is very poor in most of the cut flower industry in Colombia. See ILRF's Fairness in Flowers Campaign page for more on the general working conditions for cut-flower workers.
During the protest, Sintraguacari clashed with the local police who used violence to try to disperse the strike. On an interview to RCN Radio, workers denounced that violence was used against them to prevent them from protesting, resulting in several workers injured during the strike.
When confronted by the media about the delays and violent response to the strike, representatives from Floramerica expressed that the crisis in the flower industry was a result of the appreciation of the Colombian peso, and manifested that the situation was not likely to improve unless the government implemented programs to address the issue. In other words, labor payments for workers of Finca Guacari would be contingent on either the depreciation of the local currency or the creation of public incentives for those companies.
On September 22, union members met with government officials and representatives from Floramerica and denounced the violations that occurred in Guacari. The company insisted it would not give in to the union’s demands because they had used acts of aggression to try to persuade the company. Moreover, the company refused to provide an exact date in which payments would be made.
The strike has gone on for over a month, and workers still have not been paid. The possibility of reaching a negotiated agreement that respects the rights of workers in Guacari seems unlikely at this point. The company justifies its policies by pointing to external factors, rather than admitting its failure to respect and uphold its legal obligations with regard to labor rights. In this context, the government will have to intervene effectively in settling the dispute and will have to do it soon.
What seems contradictory is that this plantation continues to benefit from being “socially responsible.” Finca Guacari is certified as a Rainforest Alliance and Flor Verde®—green label—plantation. Both certifications claim to promote environmental and social standards. In particular, both labels claim to require enforcement of worker’s rights, including the right to receive compensation for their services and freedom of association. For more information about Florverde® and other certification programs click here.
It is unclear how independent certifiers of both labels will respond to these violations. Cases like Finca Guacari evidence the limitations of the Florverde® and Rainforest Alliance certifications. While advocating for environmentally and socially friendly practices, they fail to promptly address these issues. We look forward to seeing how the certification mechanisms investigate the labor rights violations at Finca Guacari, and how they develop a course of action to resolve the ongoing labor dispute. The proliferation of these types of certifications calls for a commitment on their side to deliver what they promise and actually meet the expectations of consumers looking to purchase flowers produced under conditions that respect international labor rights.