Why You Can Thank Our War on Drugs For Roses Grown by Exploited Labor and Toxic Chemicals
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Floral workers in Colombia and Ecuador complain of sexual harassment. For example, a 2007 report found that 55 percent of Ecuadorean workers were sexually harassed and 19 percent were even forced to have sex with a coworker or superior. Many women report being forced to take pregnancy tests or document their sterility in order to get a job, and workers who become pregnant have been forced out of their jobs.
With the long hours and repetitive motions the job requires, workers often succumb to repetitive stress injuries like tendonitis. The source of these injuries is harder to document than on-the-job injuries that cannot be denied (like a breaking a bone or losing a limb), but they are still extremely debilitating. A 2011 report from Corporacion Cactus, a Colombian floral industry watchdog, found that flower companies require an extreme amount of documentation before they will admit that they are the source of repetitive stress injuries. This allows them to avoid covering the costs of the injuries -- and continue exploiting workers in unhealthy working conditions that lead to such injuries.
The workers put in long days, sometimes working 70 to 80 hours a week during the peak season. A worker might work from 6:15am until 10 or 11 at night during the busiest time of the year. Women workers wake up at 3am each day to do housework and get their kids ready for school before reporting to work. Those without kids and chores can “sleep in” until 5am.
Colombian law calls for a 48-hour, six-day work week with a minimum wage of $333 per month and overtime pay for extra hours worked. Ecuador’s minimum wage is $318 a month. However, Corporacion Cactus regularly receives complaints from workers denied overtime pay.
The Colombian flower industry is a success story of globalization, but the same free-trade system that made it succeed could just as easily make it collapse. Just as Colombian flower growers easily put U.S. growers out of business decades ago, now Colombians must worry about other nations that can grow roses even cheaper than they can. Nowadays, Kenya is an up-and-coming rose producer, although at present it mainly supplies Europe and not the United States.
The episode of Dole’s entry and exit from the flower business encapsulates recent issues in Colombian flower production. In 1998, Dole entered the flower business by buying flower operations in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador and importing operations in Miami. It expected its flower business would earn $200 million per year. By 2006, Dole controlled 20 percent of the Colombian flower industry. But just three years later, after a long battle to keep out a union and after exchange rates shifted against Colombia’s favor, Dole pulled out of the flower business entirely.
Following the shift in exchange rates that made Colombian flowers a harder sell in the U.S., many companies laid off workers or shifted to new employment systems to reduce their costs. For example, a company might hire temporary labor instead of full-time permanent staff to avoid paying benefits or giving pay raises.
As is common in farming, flower growers have a number of costs they cannot control, including many that rise as the price of oil goes up. They see labor costs as the area where they can save money to increase profits or to simply stay alive. A Kenyan worker at a rose operation will work for less than $3 a day. As Kenya’s industry grows, Colombia and Ecuador will have to compete with it.
This Valentine's Day, do you really want to woo the love of your life by giving her a chemical-soaked rose grown by exploited workers in South America? Or do you think she deserves something a little less toxic and more symbolic of your passionate feelings for her? And if she has to have roses, look into organic options, or buy a rose bush that you plant together in the spring and enjoy for years to come.