BY OLGA ALICIA TUTILLO
This Valentine's Day, many of you will be buying roses or other flowers for your loved ones. But probably many of you don't know that the workers in Ecuador and Colombia who produce those roses are working under increasingly precarious conditions. I have been working in Ecuador's rose plantations for 22 years and visited the United States this month for the first time to share my experiences in the flower industry and the concerns and hopes of my fellow workers.
For the past few weeks, flower workers have been working long hours because Ecuador exports so many roses to the United States for Valentine's Day. (More than 400,000 boxes of flowers are shipped from Ecuador to the United States in the two weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, according to the BBC.)
20-hour work days Workers arrive at the plantations at 7 a.m. and stay until 3 a.m. the following morning, resting only for a few hours. After Valentine's Day, many workers are fired, and many can't find new jobs until rose production increases again for Mother's Day exports.
What's worse, more than 100 pesticides are used in the production of cut flowers in Latin America. Some of them are highly toxic and prohibited in the United States, but flower companies continue to use them in Ecuador without providing workers with training or proper protection. The workers are exposed to the pesticides every day, and some of the immediate effects that many of my co-workers and I have suffered include allergic reactions, vomiting and fainting. After working years in this industry, many workers also develop lung problems, vision loss and other conditions.
Workers' right to organize is not respected in the flower industry. Of 300 flower companies in Ecuador, only four have unions. Workers are afraid to try to form or join unions because their employers threaten to fire them if they do. Blacklisting is a common practice. Because I am the secretary general of the union at Rosas del Ecuador -- where we have been on strike for more than a year because the owner failed to pay us seven months' salary -- I have been placed on that list.
As a mother of five children, I am also worried about the discrimination that women workers face in the flower industry. Women who apply for jobs are often required to take a pregnancy test, which is illegal. I have also heard many managers say that they don't want to hire as many women anymore because they don't want to have to give us maternity leave or days off to take care of our children when they are sick.
While my co-workers and I are proud of the success of our industry and want to keep our jobs, I hope U.S. consumers will look at what is going on behind the scenes when they buy roses this year.
We don't want you to stop buying flowers. Instead, I hope that the next time you buy a rose, you will let the florist know that you are concerned about the health and rights of the workers, and that you would like them to make sure that the plantations they buy from comply with national laws and international labor standards.
That way, we can all have a happy Valentine's Day.
Olga Alicia Tutillo, a flower worker, is secretary general of the union at Rosas del Ecuador in Cayambe, Ecuador.
©2005 Progressive Media Project