Leading up to Valentine's Day, Colombia's flower industry is no bed of roses
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Leading up to Valentine's Day, Colombia's flower industry is no bed of roses

This week, roses and carnations will fly off the shelves of retailers around the world in preparation for Valentine’s Day on February 14.

If you’re in the United States, take a good look at the labels on the bouquets: it’s likely that they were grown in Colombia, which supplies about 75 percent of all cut flowers consumed in the U.S. The $1.3 billion industry creates about 130,000 jobs in Colombia.

While this may seem like a positive development in a country where roughly half the labor force is employed in the informal sector, some flower workers tell another story: that of wage theft, exhausting shifts, exploitative subcontracting, pesticide poisoning and disintegrating food security as monoculture flower production takes over land previously used to grow diverse food crops.

“This week, flower workers are working to the brink of exhaustion,” said Josefa Gomez, a former flower worker and member of Cactus, a Colombian NGO that accompanies flower workers and their families in the Savannah region around Bogotá, home to 73 percent of Colombia’s flower farms.

“They work all day and through the night until dawn. Some of them have actually fainted during their shifts, and as soon as they wake up they’re sent back to continue working. All of this is to meet demand from the U.S.”

300 flowers an hour

According to a recent report from Cactus, flower workers (the vast majority of whom are women) are typically responsible for 70 flower beds, each measuring about 180 square meters — a significant increase from the 40 beds per worker required 20 years ago.

After seeding the flowers, each worker must carry out the remaining tasks involved in flower production. These include pruning, weeding, cutting, and bunching the flowers into bouquets, which are then cooled and loaded onto direct flights to Miami. From there, refrigerated trucks take them to their final retail destinations in the U.S.

“Workers need to cut as many as 300 flowers an hour in order to keep up with demand,” said Gomez. “They experience higher rates of repetitive motion injuries like carpel tunnel and back injuries, and are also exposed to pesticides that increase their rates of blood and skin cancer.”

For this work, they are paid Colombia’s monthly minimum wage of 644,000 pesos, or about $275. However, Cactus estimates the workers’ actual take-home pay is lower, as uniforms and safety equipment are sometimes discounted from their salaries. Additionally, workers sometimes find that they are denied medical coverage in spite of the payroll taxes automatically deducted for health insurance — and workers injured on the job often face difficulties getting their illnesses classified as occupational, which further denies them needed health assistance.

Behind the label

Work in the flower sector is seasonal, with workers increasingly employed under temporary contracts that deny them benefits like health care and pensions, says Gomez. During the high season between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, workers put in 16-22 hour shifts, six days a week, and then are laid off or compensated with indefinite “rest days” instead of overtime as soon as demand decreases.

The use of this type of temporary contracts is in direct violation of the U.S.-Colombia Labor Action Plan, which was intended to improve Colombia’s abysmal labor rights record as a precondition for implementing a Free Trade Agreement between the two countries in 2012. Along with denying workers access to benefits that come with direct contracts and recourse with a direct employer if they face labor abuses, the rampant subcontracting in the industry complicates the legitimacy of fair trade certifications.

The Colombian Flower Growers Association, Asocoflores, created the Florverde Sustainable Flowers certification and training program and claims that it upholds labor and environmental standards, including a prohibition on the use of pesticides banned by the World Health Organization and U.S. and European Union environmental authorities.

Florverde says that about 5,000 acres of Colombia’s approximately 17,000 acres of flower crops are currently certified, and Florverde bouquets (only required to contain 70 percent Florverde flowers to carry the stamp) retail in Walmart and Costco in the U.S. But with so many subsidiaries, temporary employers and other subcontracting entities in Colombia, there is no way to know if the Florverde conditions are actually met all the way down the supply chain.

“Visits to preselected flower farms and the certification present a very limited view of what’s going on in certain farms, instead of realities for workers across the sector. It is an image the flower companies present in order to sell more of their product, but none of those profits are shared with workers,” said Gomez.

Say it with flower workers

As part of a campaign to raise awareness of working and environmental conditions in the Colombian flower industry, Cactus will celebrate February 14 as International Flower Workers’ Day, and hopes it can be an opportunity for consumers abroad to support Colombian workers by demanding better labor and environmental standards, as well as reflect on the lasting impacts of monoculture development models on local economies.

“Consumers in the U.S. have the power to help workers get direct contracts and fairer conditions, by pressuring their Congressional representatives to improve conditions for workers,” said Gomez.

“Celebrate International Flower Workers’ Day,” wrote Cactus in a statement, “because workers are more important than thousands of flowers.”

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