By Rebecca Van Horn, Program Coordinator, USLEAP
While friends, families and couples celebrate Valentine’s Day, Colombian workers, unions, and NGOs are joining together to commemorate something different this February 14th: the International Day of the Flower Worker.
U.S. consumers spend over $18 billion annually on flowers, 60% of which are imported from Colombia. Eighty-four percent of the flowers produced in Colombia are exported to the United States, but the conditions for those who harvest and prepare the flowers are atrocious.
Particularly in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, flower workers face tremendous pressure to produce, resulting in taxing physical and psychological conditions. According to the Victoria International Development Education Association, two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers suffer from work-related health problems, including headaches, nausea, impaired vision, conjunctivitis, rashes, asthma, stillbirths, miscarriages, congenital malformations, and respiratory and neurological problems. Approximately 20% of pesticides used in Colombian flower production are known carcinogens or toxins that have been either restricted or prohibited in North America and Europe.
The majority of Colombian flower workers receive the minimum wage, which covers approximately 45% of the food budget for a family. Workers often rely on overtime pay to compensate for insufficient wages, but Law 789, passed in 2002, defines the working day as 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., establishing that overtime rates are only applicable outside of that time frame. Obligatory and unpaid overtime is common, and workers comply for fear that they will lose their jobs.
Women face additional challenges. In a study of almost 1,400 flower workers conducted between 2000 and 2004, CACTUS, a Colombian NGO, found that 84.8% of the female workers were required to undergo a pregnancy test as a prerequisite for employment, and a number of women were asked to present proof of sterilization. An average of 2 flower workers arrive at the CACTUS office each day after being ilegally fired as a result of pregnancy, and, according to the Colombian National Institute of Health, flower workers experience higher-than-average rates of premature births, congenital malformations, and miscarriages. Many female flower workers report ruptured varicose veins and kidney problems as a result of standing for long hours and having restricted bathroom use.
Today, the largest Colombian flower company, Floramerica-Sunburst, which took over Dole’s flower operations in 2009, continues to deny workers pay and benefits, and unions continue to fear that the company will use the current crisis as an opportunity to replace permanent workers with contract laborers that have virtually no legal protection and cannot form a union. On November 16, flower workers at the Guacarí plantation in Zipaquira, Colombia, near Bogotá, went on strike in response to Floramerica’s failure to pay salaries for more than a month and other legally-required benefits for several months, including social security and health insurance. Unionized Guacarí workers resigned on December 1 after they were beaten and intimidated by thugs brought in by the company. On the same day, workers at several of the company’s other plantations went on strike, where they remain to this day.
Flower workers are not asking U.S. consumers to boycott; unless it is a part of a larger strategic campaign, boycotting would put jobs at risk without necessarily improving working conditions. Unfortunately, flower worker unions in Colombia also report that a Fair Trade label does not at this point in time ensure a better work environment, and unions have denounced conditions on fair trade-certified flower farms in Colombia.
Instead, as you smell your roses this Valentine’s Day, think about what went into producing them. Ask your local florists where they purchase their flowers and express concern over the working conditions at plantations. Consider sending a letter to the Colombian Embassy in Washington, DC regarding the treatment of flower workers.
Ambassador Gabriel Silva Luján, 2118 Leroy Place, NW, Washington, DC 20008
Phone: (202)-387-8338Fax: (202)-232-8643 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org