Deadly Blooms: Colombia's flower industry is based on the exploitation of women workers

The Guardian

Colombia's flower industry is based on the exploitation of its women workers

By Kevin Watkins

"Flowers," wrote Goethe, "are the beautiful words and hieroglyphs of nature, with which she shows us how much she loves us." Then again, he never had to make a living by picking them.

Up on the high plains of the Savanna region around the Colombian capital of Bogota, you get a different view. Here flowers are hieroglyphs not of nature, but of exploitation. "For me flowers mean hard work, bad conditions and bad health," says Elida Duarte, a 29-year-old flower picker working for the Dole corporation, which now controls one fifth of Colombia's exports.

The Savanna is flower country. Today, Colombia is the second largest source of flower exports to the world market after Holland. The giant greenhouses dotted across the landscape generate $600m a year in export revenue. Only coffee and coca earn more. One of every two flowers sold in the US now originates on the Savanna; and the chances are that the last bunch of roses you got - or gave - on Valentine's Day included a Colombian bloom.

The flower boom has generated huge environmental costs. The water table on the Savanna has been shrinking almost as quickly as export earnings have been rising. Around the town of Madrid the aquifer has fallen from 20 metres to 200 metres, and water is now imported from Bogota. Highly toxic residues of pesticides banned in Europe, such as lindano, have been found in dangerously high levels in groundwater.

But the flower trade has created jobs. Around 80,000 women now work in the greenhouses, many of them seeking an escape from rural poverty. Wages are low. On an average day, one woman will pick over 400 top grade carnations. Four of them will cost you £2 in your local florist, which is more than a flower worker earns in a day. But in an area with 40% unemployment, a job in the flower industry offers hope.

It also generates risk. Flowers leave the Savanna with their blooms in an immaculate state to meet American and European inspection standards. They are grown in sterilised soil in greenhouses that are fumigated every day with fungicides, insecticides and nemoticides.

One-fifth of the chemicals used in the greenhouses of the Savanna are carcinogens or toxins that have been restricted for health reasons in the US. Women workers testify to spraying dichlorpropene, categorised by the WHO as carcinogenic, without protective clothing and with only handkerchiefs to cover their mouths.

Medical surveys carried out by Cactus, a Bogota-based non-government organisation, show that nearly two-thirds of Colombia's flower workers suffer from maladies associated with pesticide exposure, ranging from nausea, to conjunctivitis, muscle pains, and mis-carriages.

Workers in the industry face more than immediate health risks. While Colombian law provides wide-ranging maternity rights and social welfare rights, these count for nothing in the greenhouse economy. In theory, pregnant women have the right to 80 days' paid maternity leave. In practice, many companies simply sack women who become pregnant. Membership of a trade union is a one-way ticket to instant dismissal.

In the small town of Tocancipa on the northern Savanna, Cactus lawyers provide a legal advice service for flower workers who have been unfairly dismissed. "We deal with around 60 new cases every month, and well over half of them concern dismissal linked to pregnancy," says Cactus director Laura Rangel. Mother's Day may generate windfall profits, but the Colombian flower industry views pregnancy and motherhood as a "crime" meriting instant dismissal.

Efforts have been made to clean up the flower industry. The Colombian Association of Flower Exporters has been pressing its members to adopt a voluntary code of conduct on employment rights and pesticides.

The problem is that voluntary codes of conduct provide scant protection in countries like Colombia where governments fail to enforce basic labour rights. "In the absence of effective monitoring and enforcement through the labour movement and government environmental agencies they are little more than unenforceable wish-lists," says Barbara Dinham of the Pesticides Action Network.

In many ways Colombia is a microcosm of globalisation applied to flowers. Competition among poor countries to sell flowers to rich ones is pushing supply up, and prices down. In a $4bn world market, corporate producers like Dole can still make huge profits on slim margins.

For the high-priests of globalisation in the World Bank and the G8, Colombian flowers are an outstanding success story. For anti-globalisers they are a metaphor for all that is wrong with international trade - and prime candidates for sanctions.

Both sides have got it wrong. The women flower workers on the Savanna want their jobs, but they also want employers to respect their rights. They want solidarity, not consumer boycotts. As consumers, we have a responsibility to listen, and to press for better standards. Think about it next time you buy flowers.

• Kevin Watkins is policy adviser at Oxfam.