Valentine's Day Sweatshops


By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Before you buy your sweetie those roses for Valentine's Day, pause for a moment to consider where they come from, and at what cost -- and what can be done to give a bit more joy not just to the flowers' recipients, but their producers.

Cut flowers are a highly globalized industry. The majority of cut flowers sold in the United States are imported, especially from Colombia and Ecuador. Kenya and Tanzania are the key overseas supplier for Europe.

Here's how the industry looks from the multinational corporate perspective: "In just a 24-hour period, each stem is cut, packed and loaded onto a temperature controlled UPS aircraft heading to Miami. There, they clear customs and are distributed to florists and consumers across the country. Eighty-seven percent of all cut flower imports arrive in Miami." UPS reports that it imported more than 14.8 million stems of cut flowers into the United States last year from South American countries such as Colombia and Ecuador.

But on the ground in Colombia and Ecuador, things don't look so smoothly efficient and trouble free.

Olga Tutillo is secretary general of Rosas del Ecuador, a flower workers union in Ecuador. She has worked at flower plantations for 22 years. She is 38 years old and has five children.

Tutillo explains how hard the work is for Ecuador's roughly 100,000 flower workers, about 70 percent of whom are women -- the faces behind Cupid. The International Labor Organization estimates about 20 percent of the workforce consists of children.

The workers generally earn the national minimum wage, $145 per month. They work especially long hours in advance of Valentine's Day and other flower-giving holidays in the United States. They experience major occupational risks. Back pain is common among those who must stand or lean all day. Repetitive motion injuries are common. Rose pickers are frequently cut by thorns.

"There are also problems caused by pesticide fumigation," she explains. "Fumigation happens every day, either to prevent the plants from getting different diseases or to deal with it when they do get those diseases. Some of these chemicals are highly toxic."

Flower workers who try to organize to improve their working conditions face severe repression.

"It is extremely difficult to unionize in Ecuador," says Tutillo. "The companies are organized among themselves and they have a list on the Internet of the people who have tried to unionize or have unionized. If someone tries to create a union, the company threatens to fire them and says they won't be able to find another job. These are the famous blacklists."

Thanks to firings, blacklisting and other tactics -- like increasing use of contract workers instead of full-fledged employees -- the unionization rate in Ecuador is depressingly low. Among 300 flower companies in Ecuador, reports Tutillo, "only four have unions -- the other attempts to unionize have been repressed."

The story is much the same in Colombia, says Ricardo Zamudio, president of Cactus, a Colombian organization that conducts research on issues related to the flower industry.

Workers are trying to organize despite the repression they face. In Colombian a recent important development has been independent unionization at one flower company owned by Dole, which altogether controls 20 percent of Colombia's flower exports. The International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) is running a letter-writing campaign to urge Dole Fresh Flowers and the Colombian-based firm Splendor Flowers to respect workers' right to unionize .

Unfortunately, as long as the repression remains intense, consumers have much more freedom to demand flower justice than do the flower workers.

In Europe, a flower certification program has taken hold that tells consumers whether flowers were grown on farms or plantations that respect minimal environmental and labor conditions. According to the International Labor Organization, a substantial portion of flowers grown in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe receive certification under the Flower Label Program. The flower certification program is no panacea, but it does help modestly improve environmental and working conditions, and it gives workers more space to organize.

The program has had much less impact in South America, in considerable part because the Flower Label Program hasn't taken hold in the United States, where most Colombian and Ecuadorian flowers are shipped.

Just like with sweatshops, consumer pressure can make a significant difference in the lives of the flower workers. But the opportunity is in some ways greater, because of the concentration among both flower producers and sellers. ILRF is leading the way, trying to galvanize consumer pressure to force Dole and large cut flower sellers -- Albertsons, Safeway, Costco and Wal-Mart, among others -- to pressure flower suppliers to respect workers' rights to organize, protect employees' health and safety, and pay overtime wages.

So go ahead and give that rose for Valentine's Day. But be careful of the thorns -- and to avoid sticking it to the flower workers, support the ILRF campaign.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of On the Rampage: Corporate Predators and the Destruction of Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press).