Flower workers deserve better

Chicago Sun Times


Roses are red, violets are blue;

The flowers you're getting on Mother's Day,

Are not just about you.

Those flowers are also about the thousands of mothers and young women in South America who are forced to work in horrendous conditions so we can have that bouquet of flowers on Mother's Day.

In the lead-up to Mother's Day when U.S. demand for fresh-cut flowers increases exponentially, women in South America are working as many as 60 hours per week, but are often denied overtime wages.

Nearly all of the roses and carnations sold in the United States are produced in greenhouses in Ecuador and Colombia, where labor rights violations and health hazards are daily occurrences. Most of the workers in these greenhouses are women. They are often subjected to pregnancy tests when they apply for jobs, and they are fired if they become pregnant or if they try to organize a union.

Flower workers are exposed to numerous pesticides. A study of 8,000 Colombian flower workers found that they were exposed to 127 pesticides, three of which are considered extremely toxic by the World Health Organization. In addition, 20 percent of these pesticides are either banned or unregistered for use in the United States. Exposure to these toxins causes headaches, nausea, impaired vision, asthma, respiratory and neurological problems, and congenital malformations.

Employers often fail to provide their workers with adequate protective equipment and training to prevent pesticide-related illnesses. Even more troublesome, production quotas are often set so high that, in order to keep their jobs, flower workers are forced to bring their young children in to help them work.

Some of the largest flower retailers in the United States are the same supermarkets where many of us buy our groceries: Albertson's, Safeway, Costco and Wal-Mart.

A boycott of flowers, however, is not the answer because an alternative source for flowers grown under acceptable and certifiable labor and environmental conditions does not exist today. However, courageous labor and worker rights leaders and groups in the United States and Latin America are working toward this goal.

But until they succeed in improving the conditions in the industry, there is something that each and every one of us can and must do if we truly wish to honor our mothers and the thousands of mothers who are picking those beautiful flowers filling our stores, supermarkets and homes. The next time you purchase flowers, ask the florist if they are aware of the health hazards and labor rights violations that affect flower workers. And ask them to speak with their suppliers to urge them to abide by acceptable international labor and health standards.

The United States Trade Representative, the federal agency charged with negotiating trade deals on behalf of the president, notified Congress that the United States intends to negotiate a new free trade agreement with Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Negotiations with Colombia are set to begin this month.

A Fairness in Flowers Campaign is under way, and an important goal is to persuade our trade representative to use these upcoming trade negotiations to address violations of flower workers' rights. We must ensure that any new trade agreement, at a minimum, adheres to the protections already provided under the Generalized System of Preference, the provisions in U.S. trade law that dictate how foreign countries must treat their workers in order to gain access to the U.S. market.

The campaign is also calling for the inclusion of anti-discrimination language that would protect women and other traditionally disadvantaged workers in any new free trade agreement. Such a clause is part of the longstanding International Labor Organization standards, and the United States should follow that example.

I plan to continue my work in Congress, along with the International Labor Rights Fund, www.laborrights.org, to support the Fair Flowers Campaign so that mothers in Colombia and Ecuador won't have to suffer to produce something that brings so many mothers in this country so much joy. Mother's Day is about honoring every mother, in every country.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who represents Illinois' 9th District, is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.