This weekend millions of shoppers will show their seasonal devotion to mom with the gift of a bouquet. But in Colombia, where nearly 2/3 of our flowers are grown, 10 years of mostly cosmetic improvements in the cut flowers industry have left workers as vulnerable as ever.
New research from War on Want shows employees in Colombia preparing cut flowers for export face poverty wages, health problems such as repetitive strain injuries and risk miscarriages through exposure to pesticides. While the report looks specifically at the influence of British supermarkets, American markets play an even bigger role. In 2004 we bought $385 million worth of flowers from Colombia.
A certification body set up by the Colombian flower exporters association, Florverde (Green Flowers), claims its approved farms are the most ethical suppliers in their treatment for workers and the environment. But employees on these farms complain about their pay, health, job insecurity, working time–up to 15 hours a day–and firms’ anti-union hostility. According to our research, these workers–mostly single mothers–earn about $50 a week, less than half a living wage.
International health standards are also disregarded on Florverde farms. The World Health Organisation recommends at least 24 hours between the time flowers are sprayed with pesticides to preserve their beauty and when employees re-enter the area. As American buyers press for completed orders, however, many workers are told to enter greenhouses to cut the flowers without protective clothing right after fumigation. Colombian women, forced to breathe in toxic chemicals, have above-average rates of miscarriages and children born with birth defects. Exposure to pesticides often results in fainting spells, chronic asthma, eye and breathing troubles, skin complaints, allergies and headaches. Employees report that if accidents occur or workers get sick, they are often fired without compensation.
At one Florverde-standard farm, when mother of four Esperanza Botina asked to see a doctor about her repetitive strain injury, the company refused and instead demanded that she work extra hours. Esperanza declined and was sacked without compensation–a common fate for workers who fall ill. Now, with severe arm pain, she cannot work and struggles to care for her family.
Esperanza says: “I am always short of money. The supervisors were very harsh. If anyone was sick, they would give them a sanction.”
Claudia Lucia Quevedo is a pregnant single mother with two small daughters. She is owed back pay from another Florverde-approved farm whose rich owners suddenly filed for bankruptcy.
Claudia says: “What worries me the most is that I won’t have health insurance by the time the baby is born. And with so many diseases, I don’t know whether he will be healthy.”
While Florverde’s standards are meant to ensure environmentally-friendly practices and safe working conditions, War on Want found the mark gives no such guarantee. On Florverde farms, 36% of the toxic chemicals used were considered to be “extremely” or “highly” toxic by the World Health Organisation.
Besides exposure to toxic chemicals, flower workers are at high risk of repetitive strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain and muscle weakness in the hand and forearm. And though Colombia’s cut flower industry employs less than one in 100 Colombians, flower workers account for one in three cases of carpal tunnel syndrome.
A boycott is not the answer. Flower workers in Colombia need jobs, but they need jobs that are not hazardous to their health. The United States, as Colombia’s biggest flower market, can and must bring its enormous pressure on the industry.
War on Want’s report, Growing Pains, and filmed interviews with Colombian flower workers are available at www.waronwant.org/cutflowers.
EVE BACHRACH lives in London, where she works for War on Want. She can be reached at: EBachrach@waronwant.org