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The True Cost of Flowers: Labor Practices in Colombia's Flower Industry

In Colombia, there are approximately 400 companies that produce cut flowers for export, occupying about 17,000 acres of land. Seventy-three percent of these farms are in the Bogota Savannah, 24 percent in the province of Antioquia and 3 percent in the central area region of the country. Two out of every three flowers in the United States is imported from Colombia, as Colombia is the second-largest exporter of flowers in the world behind Holland. Behind the beauty of the flowers exported, there is an often hidden array of complex economic, labor, social, and environmental factors with direct consequences for those who work in the industry.

During peak seasons, including leading up to February 14th as well as leading up to Mother’s Day, employees often work 12-22 hour shifts, earning little pay and suffering major health impacts from repetitive activities and dangerous pesticides. Workloads and production goals increase each year, and workers have consistently been denied their right to unionize or collectively bargain. The large majority of employee contracts are temporary, and the renewal of these contracts is subject to the will of the flower businesses. During valentine's season,  flower companies’ profit significantly increases, for instance this year it is calculated that about 550 million stems will be shipped abroad representing 35% of annual sales and significant profits of 10% for employers, while workers can expect just a few more pesos, which does not compensate at all the physical and mental fatigue of the strenuous 16 hours a day of work.

In addition to labor rights violations, the cultivation of flowers in Colombia has also involved systematically implementing neoliberal international trade principles and practices, including reducing expenses at any cost to increase profits and relying on third-party subcontracting.

Under the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), made effective in 2012 despite many concerns about labor rights in Colombia, giant swathes of monoculture flowers have been cultivated in certain regions, notably the Bogotá Savannah and eastern Antioquia, eliminating the cultivation of diverse crops and affecting the food sovereignty of the population. The tax benefits of the FTA have largely benefitted corporations, notably the Association of Colombian Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES), while workers in the field suffer a variety of labor rights violations.

As a precursor to the U.S.-Colombia FTA and in response to many concerns from labor activists, the United States government came to an agreement in 2011 known as the Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the Colombian government to protect labor rights and prevent violence against unionists. The LAP focuses on five specific sectors: palm oil, ports, mining, sugar, and flowers. Despite the positive goals of the LAP and due to the lack of any effective implementation/monitoring mechanisms, the LAP has been characterized by Colombian unionists as almost entirely ineffective, with an official complaint being registered with the Department of Labor in May 2016.

In the LAP, there are several important aspects that directly impact the flower industry in Colombia. All forms of third-party subcontracting (particularly associative worker cooperatives) were supposed to be eliminated, workers should have greater freedom to organize, and labor inspectors ought to regularly visit the greenhouses where the flower industry operates. According to Corporación Cactus’s 2017 report, none of these goals have been fully achieved and workers continue to operate in an extremely precarious environment.

So what can we do?

When asked by WFP Solidarity Collective what actions can be taken, representatives of the flower sector said they prefer that consumers buy with their conscience. That is, ask your flower supplier where they are sourcing their flowers from and ask them to verify worker conditions in that location, as well as social and environmental impacts of the industry.

We are not asking you to curb your floral purchases or boycott the flower industry. What we are asking on this holiday is that you take a moment and think about how those perfect petals arrive on millions of doorsteps and office desks across the country. Share with your friends and family about the lives of flower workers so negatively impacted by the unregulated and unrestricted Free Trade Agreement – a far cry from fair – that the U.S. has implemented with Colombia.

And for disappointed women or forgetful spouses and partners, you can now excuse yourselves on the grounds of moral principle for not celebrating this Valentine’s Day with a floral arrangement.

We join our partners in demanding:

1. No to work overload: this negatively affects the quality of life of workers, and is a mental and physical risk factor (extreme levels of stress, physical and emotional exhaustion, mental illness) and increases the risk of serious accidents at the workplace.

2. No to labor outsourcing: A prevalent practice among flower companies is the hiring of personnel through third-party intermediaries or temporary/contract workers; with this practice companies can evade labor laws and obligations towards their employee. We demand direct hiring for all workers in the industry.

3. Right of association: It is a fundamental right to freely assemble, and form groups, associations or organizations with the objective of defending the rights of workers. This is laid out in the Colombian constitution as well as the International Labor Organization (ILO).

4. No to the Duque’s austerity package: the disastrous pension and labor reform proposed by President Iván Duque Márquez would be detrimental to the lives and humanity of workers around Colombia.

5. We urge the compliance to Municipal Agreement 020 of 2003

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