By Lucia Curiel, Volunteer, International Labor Rights Forum
This Valentine’s Day, as you pass by local street vendors, or go into a local shop, th ere will likely be more flowers around than last month. A bold red rose might catch your eye. If you stop and inspect, you might appreciate its vivid color, evocative aroma and delicate form and petals. It’s hardly inappropriate that such a beautiful, graceful being should have come to symbolize love and affection.
Yet where did this and other flowers come from? We might imagine such a beauty to have grown in a tranquil garden or a lush and wild bed. But such a romantic image of this emblem of romance contrasts sharply with the bitter, painful circumstances surrounding the flower’s production and delivery. If we begin to trace that rose, or any other flower, back to its point of origin, it is suddenly not so pretty.
In reality, Linda Farthing, in her article, “Where Flowers Bloom So Does Hope: Colombia’s Troubled Flower Industry,” tells us, flowers sold in US supermarkets are very likely from Colombia because Colombia’s cheap labor has made imported flowers less expensive than those grown in the US. Over 60% of the flowers sold in the U.S. come from Colombia. There, in Colombia, about 100, 000 flower workers toil under unsafe, unjust labor conditions for poverty-level wages. According to Farthing, “Although flower workers earn more than most others in agriculture, they still generally only earn Colombia’s minimum wage. This approximately $12 a day covers less than 45 percent of estimated basic living expenses and contrasts dramatically with the estimated retail value of the flowers that just one woman picks daily - US$600–800.”
Years ago, the disparity between workers’ wagers and company profits was not quite so huge. International competition has pressured companies to demand more and more of each worker, without increasing their wages. Retired agronomist Alberto Caro who once owned a share in a flower farm chose not to succumb. He told Farthing, “I sold because I could see that as international competition grew we would be forced to squeeze our workers harder and harder.”
Rather than hire more employees, companies exploit and overload the same size workforce in an effort to produce more without spending more on labor, while yielding larger profits. Workers are pushed to unreasonable and excessive extremes prompting work-related injuries and health problems. Flower worker Esperanza Cerero corroborates, telling Farthing that “Just a few years ago, each of us was responsible for twelve beds of flowers, now it’s almost doubled. It means there are more and more injuries. Some friends are so disabled they can’t even feed themselves because they can’t lift a spoon. But women work anyway – there have no choice.” Further complications result from exposure to toxic chemicals, fungicides, and pesticides, many of which are illegal in the United States.
For all their effort and sacrifice, workers receive little in return. Companies generally employ workers on a short-term basis to evade social security payments and other benefits required by law for full time employees. As a result, workers are economically unstable and perpetually vulnerable to further exploitation.
On top of all this, freedom of association is neither respected nor promoted in the flower farms of Colombia. Union membership or organizing is generally prevented by illegal firings, threats to close farms where workers are mobilizing, or blacklisting union organizers.
John McQuaid has spoken to local workers and related some of their stories and thoughts. Flower work income tends to be a bit higher than a more common maid position or employment on subsistence farms so some vow to stick it out.
Argenis Bernal told McQuaid that she continued to work under such conditions because she “only had couple of years until [she would qualify for a pension].” Although she developed severe problems with her spinal column, she had no choice because she and her husband were putting one of their sons through a business management program at a regional community college. These workers have a right to dignified conditions of work and the right to organize! They are basic fundamental rights at work that should not be considered privileges granted to just a few.
The International Labor Rights Forum’s Fairness in Flowers Campaign continues to ask supporters to call on ASOCOFLORES (the Colombian Flower Export Agency) to improve the standards of the Florverde label to include fundamental worker rights.
Free2Work, a joint project between ILRF and the Not for Sale Campaign that rates companies on their policies and practices related to forced and child labor, recently launched its ratings of different flower companies and certification systems. To check out the results of these ratings and see how different companies that sell flowers measure up, click here. Free2Work evaluated each company on the same scale. The companies that received ratings include: 1-800-Flowers, Albertson’s, ProPlants, ProFlowers, and Provide Commerce.
Free2Work has rates certification systems to measure each system’s policies, implementation, employee empowerment, response to child labor, and transparency. To find out how some flower certification systems rate, check out the following links: FlorVerde, and Fair Trade.
The flower industry is too often overlooked or forgotten, with many large flower companies completely hiding the sources of their flowers and the conditions under which they were produced. The flower export industries of the Global South must be reformed to provide decent and safe working conditions, a respectful environment, and the freedom to organize.
Click here to find out more how you can support flower workers.