BY CYNTHIA MELLON
Valentine's Day has become practically synonymous with red roses, yet few consumers have any idea where the flowers come from. The roses purchased last week in the typical U.S. supermarket came from women working 60-hour weeks for less than $1 an hour in pesticide-filled greenhouses and freezing warehouses near the Colombian capital.
The workers' plight, to say the least, is no bed of roses. But an annual event called Flower Workers Day, held February 14, has started to raise consciousness about the industry among Colombians and among European and North American consumers.
Colombia has grown flowers for export since the mid-1960s on a high-altitude plain just west of Bogotá. The climate is cool and stable, and land and water are plentiful. Within easy reach are an international airport and a large labor force.
These advantages enable Colombia to provide 11 percent of the flowers sold on the world market, second only to the Netherlands. About 78 percent of the Colombian output goes to the United States. Another 12 percent goes to European Union nations, where it competes with flowers from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
But the Colombian profits, which amounted to $700 million last year, don't reach the people who grow, harvest and package the flowers. The workers earn Colombia's minimum wage, about $150 per month. Leading up to Valentine's Day and holidays, heightened production quotas compel them to work the long hours. The workers also contend with pesticides banned in the United States. And the farms offer little job security, thanks to labor laws that allow employing the workers on short-term contracts.
The production directly employs about 88,000 people. About 70 percent are women, including many single mothers. In a country with an official unemployment rate of 18 percent, these workers have few job options.
The industry's dominant force is the Colombian Flower Exporters Association (Asocolflores). Besides the lax labor laws, Asocolflores has convinced the government to buoy the industry with tax breaks.
Another heavyweight is California-based Dole Food, which bought up 20 percent of the Colombian industry in 1998. Conditions on the Dole farms resemble the others. The company tries to keep a low profile and hires Colombians to manage its local operations. Many Dole workers don't know they work for a foreign firm.
Most Colombian flower workers are fearful of union organizing--and for good reason. More trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in all other nations combined. In the flower industry, every time an independent union has emerged, the companies have managed to break it, usually by firing the workers and moving production. United Workers Central (CUT), the country's main union federation, lacks the resources to overcome such tactics.
A Bogotá-based nongovernmental organization called Cactus and a handful of other groups offer the workers free legal advice and health-and-safety information. And they maintain close contact with the CUT, watching for any organizing opportunity.
The groups organized the first Flower Workers Day in 2002. The main event every February 14 is a noisy car caravan through the flower-producing region. Cactus also distributes thousands of postcards to workers for suggestions on cleaning up the industry. The group shares the results with Asocolflores, which claims to consider the suggestions.
This year's events, focusing on health and safety, attracted support from the National Food Industry Workers Union (Sinaltrainal), which represents Coca-Cola employees. After the caravan, the NGOs held outdoor parties for flower workers and their families.
The municipalities of Tocancipá, Funza and Facatativá devoted their town council meetings last week to presentations by worker advocates and industry representatives. Cactus organizer Ricardo Zamudio said the meetings turned into heated debates. Facatativá, the flower-growing region's largest town, declared February 14 an annual public holiday.
Although Colombia's major newspapers ignored Flower Workers Day this year, a dozen radio programs put organizers on the air. And a City-TV show, "Arriba, Bogotá," featured interviews with Zamudio and Asocolflores social-services director Marta Moreno. "If the industry weren't feeling pressured, it would not have entered into public debate with us on worker health and safety," Zamudio said by telephone from Bogotá.
Cactus stresses that no one is calling for a boycott, but efforts are afoot to provide fair-trade options. "There's been some progress in the European markets," Zamudio said. "Consumers now prefer flowers that are grown under better working conditions, and there is a label they can look for to help them identify those flowers."
And organizers are considering launching a North American publicity campaign. This year Oxfam-Canada's Web site published a Valentine's "card" that enabled visitors to send a message to Asocolflores. "A lot still needs to be done before North American buyers get on board," Zamudio said. "But we are beginning to see some progress there as well."
© 2004 Colombia Week.
Cynthia Mellon is a former program director for women's issues at the Bogotá-based Latin American Institute for Alternative Legal Services (ILSA), where she also edited the journal Beyond Law. She is author of the booklet "Deceptive Beauty: A Look at the Global Flower Industry" (Victoria International Development Education Association, 2002).