Tuesday February 13, 2007
A thorn in those Valentine's Day flowers
Bundles of roses waited to be inspected for pests and diseases last week at the airport in Miami after arriving from South America. (J. Pat Carter/AP)
By Alexandra Early
EVERY YEAR on Valentine's Day, millions of Americans head to their local florist or supermarket to buy flowers for a friend or family member. Most are mainly concerned about getting the flowers to the recipient on time. Yet few ever ask where the flowers come from or who helped grow and pick them.
I never thought much about the human beings behind the bouquets either -- until I traveled to Colombia last year and talked with a group of "floriculture" workers in a village near Bogota. I learned that our domestic expressions of affection -- which reach their largest volume on Valentine's Day and Mothers' Day -- require painful, low-paid labor by a global workforce that's largely female.
America's main supplier is Colombia, the second-largest exporter of fresh-cut flowers next to the Netherlands. More than 100,000 workers help grow, sort, and package the nearly $1 billion worth of flowers produced there each year. Originally spurred by tariff incentives designed to induce farmers to switch from coca cultivation, the industry is now dominated by big local plantation owners and multi national corporations like Dole Food.
The Colombian flower workers I met received little love or appreciation from management -- on Valentine's Day or any other. During a visit by a delegation of American labor and student activists, members of a union called Sintrasplendor described the many occupational hazards they face.
Whether young or old, they complained about the lack of protective equipment and clothing, which leaves them exposed to pesticides in the fields and to the fungicides that flowers are dipped in prior to shipment. They say the chemicals cause widespread headaches, asthma, nausea, and impaired vision. The repetitive tasks and long hours in assembly-line jobs have also left many flower workers with painful carpal tunnel injuries.
Like Coca Cola and other foreign firms in Colombia, Dole has taken advantage of the country's weak labor laws and climate of repression. When workers at Dole-owned Splendor Flowers tried to organize two years ago to win better pay and conditions, management conducted an aggressive anti-union campaign. According to the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), this "included bringing in a company-backed union, firing union leaders, challenging the union's legal registration with the Colombian government, and refusing to re instate fired union leaders despite court orders to do so."
Moreover, Dole recently announced the closing of its Splendor plantation, blaming the lay off of one-third of its Colombian workforce on lower-wage competition from Africa and Asia. Within a decade, most roses will be "Made in China" because that nation is gearing up to undercut exporters in Ecuador, Kenya, Malaysia, and Thailand, as well as Colombia. On China's new flower farms, workers are already clipping roses in giant greenhouses, taking them to huge sheds to remove the thorns, and then wrapping them in paper and plastic for shipment to Los Angeles or Moscow. Without any job rights or union protection, young women earning $25 per month face the same occupational safety and health problems as their South American counter parts.
Human-rights and labor solidarity groups like Witness For Peace, Global Exchange, the Colombia Support Network, and US Labor Education Project in the Americas have all taken up the cause of the displaced Splendor workers.
None of these activists is trying to cast an unwanted pall over Valentine's Day. They just want more consumers to choose flowers that have been certified as "VeriFlora" products. VeriFlora growers don't use the pesticides that sicken flower workers and they agree to respect local labor rights and environmental regulations. Unfortunately, only two flower-sellers in the country -- Freshblooms in New Jersey and Organic Bouquet in California -- have embraced this higher standard.
A few years ago, American jewelry buyers were still being offered the product of illegal trafficking in precious stones -- the "blood diamonds" mined by child laborers in strife-torn Africa. It took years of international campaigning before public awareness was raised and importation of this tainted merchandise was sharply curtailed. If the abundant thorns in the global flower trade begin to prick a few consumer consciences, "floriculture" abuses may someday be censured as well. If enough of us question and complain, more flower importers in this country will begin using suppliers certified as socially responsible and worker-friendly.
Alexandra Early is a student at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.