By Lisa Taylor, WFP Colombia
In the United States, February 14th has traditionally been celebrated as Valentine’s Day, a day when love is often translated into special plans with loved ones, extra words of affection, and – not to be forgotten – certain material gifts, often including flowers. Before these flowers are given as a gift, they have already accumulated quite a long history: seeds collected and planted, young flowers watered and pruned, grown flowers cut and processed, packaged and exported carefully by workers in the flower industry.
Two out of every three flowers in the United States is imported from Colombia, as Colombia is the second-largest exporter of flowers in the world behind Holland. Behind the beauty of the flowers exported, there is a often hidden array of complex economic, labor, social, and environmental factors with direct consequences for those who work in the industry.
Conditions in the industry
According to a January 2017 report by Corporación Cactus, 65 percent of flower workers are women, and many are single mothers in economically vulnerable situations. Pregnancy tests and birth control are often required for women to gain and maintain employment in the flower sector, especially as their close proximity to toxic and carcinogenic pesticides can cause birth defects and health risks for pregnant women.
During peak seasons, including leading up to February 14th as well as leading up to Mother’s Day, employees often work 12-22 hours, earning little pay and suffering major health impacts from repetitive activities and dangerous pesticides. Workloads and production goals increase each year, and workers have consistently been denied their right to unionize or collectively bargain. The large majority of employee contracts are temporary, and the renewal of these contracts is subject to the will of the flower businesses.
As former flower worker Glady Mora says, “It’s giving your life to this work totally, and here in Colombia, there is a lot of exploitation [. . .] And the pay doesn’t compensate for the reality of the work.”
In addition to labor rights violations, the cultivation of flowers in Colombia has also involved systematically implementing neoliberal international trade principles and practices, including reducing expenses at any cost to increase profits and relying on third-party subcontracting.
Under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), made effective in 2012 despite many concerns about labor rights in Colombia, giant swathes of monoculture flowers have been cultivated in certain regions, notably the Bogotá Savannah and eastern Antioquia, eliminating the cultivation of diverse crops and affecting the food sovereignty of the population. The tax benefits of the FTA have largely benefitted corporations, notably the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES), while workers in the field suffer a variety of labor rights violations.
As Marco Tulio Franco from SINALTRAINAL comments, “Today the problems are even worse. Problem #1 for the workers is their health, also job instability due to the neoliberal model, the poor treatment of workers by management, and the work pace of each day.”
As a precursor to the U.S.-Colombia FTA and in response to many concerns from labor activists, the United States government came to an agreement in 2011 known as the Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the Colombian government to protect labor rights and prevent violence against unionists. The LAP focuses on five specific sectors: palm oil, ports, mining, sugar, and flowers. Despite the positive goals of the LAP and due to the lack of any effective implementation/monitoring mechanisms, the LAP has been characterized by Colombian unionists as almost entirely ineffective, with an official complaint being registered with the Department of Labor in May 2016.
In the LAP, there are several important aspects that directly impact the flower industry in Colombia. All forms of third-party subcontracting (particularly associative worker cooperatives) were supposed to be eliminated, workers should have greater freedom to organize, and labor inspectors ought to regularly visit the greenhouses where the flower industry operates. According to Corporación Cactus’s 2017 report, none of these goals have been fully achieved and workers continue to operate in an extremely precarious environment.
So, what do we do?
After learning about the flower industry in Colombia and the U.S.’s failure to guarantee labor rights, what can U.S. citizens do to help? The question of boycott is often raised, yet Colombian flower workers are not calling for a direct boycott of flowers – after all, it is the only source of income for many women and families in flower-exporting municipalities.
Current flower worker Marisol Santacruz emphasizes the value of the flower industry, saying, “I believe that flower work is important, especially because it provides many families in the Bogotá Savannah the means to subsist, and it has been valued for years.”
When asked by Witness for Peace what actions can be taken, representatives of the flower sector said they prefer that consumers buy with their conscience. That is, ask your flower supplier where they are sourcing their flowers from and ask them to verify worker conditions in that location, as well as social and environmental impacts of the industry.
One more action you can take is to encourage a resolution introduced by Representative Keith Ellison in the United States House of Representatives that would commemorate February 14th as International Flower Workers’ Day, an initiative supported by Colombians in the flower sector. The introduction of this resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives has a double purpose: to recognize and dignify the labor of flower workers in Colombia and the culture of flowers they celebrate, and to build the groundwork for renewed U.S. engagement with flower workers in Colombia to concretely improve the labor, social, and environmental conditions that result from the industry.
Ricardo Zamudio from Corporación Cactus says that this is “a way to recognize the importance of respecting the rights of those who make possible the success of the flower industry abroad. It’s also a way to call the attention of the Colombian government and in particular, the U.S. Congress so that they fulfill the obligations that are written in the Labor Action Plan under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. It’s also a call to [. . .] respecting labor rights and protecting the environment and the use of water.”
So before buying flowers this February 14th, check with your supplier and click here to contact your congressperson and encourage them to support the resolution making February 14th International Flower Workers’ Day.