The Islamic Post Blog

The Ugly Side of Flowers in Colombia by Khalida
February 2, 2009, 8:44 am
Filed under: January Volume I- 2009, Latino/Caribe

By Sabeerah A. Majied

Islamic Post Staff Writer

While much of the industrialized world enjoys the benefits of protective labor policies, other countries are not as fortunate. Colombia is the second largest exporter of fresh flowers in the world. Every day 747s and DC-8s leave Bogota airport loaded with boxes of flowers. It’s a multi- million dollar industry that involves the growth and sales of roses, carnations, daisies and chrysanthemums to Canada, the United States and Europe. Colombia’s neighbor, Ecuador, also benefits from the export of flowers.
However, there is an ugly side to the beautiful flowers.  Cultivation is harsh on the environment and even harder on the tens of thousands of employees that work the farms. In Colombia, it was estimated that 70 percent of the employees are women who work up to 60 hours per week at peak times –like just before Mothers’ Day or Valentine’s Day. Their wages are low and they do not get full overtime benefits as workers are often not represented by unions.
There are also many accounts of the health problems linked to exposure to pesticide cocktails used daily to ensure perfect blossoms. Workers who lack proper training and protective equipment are often forced to enter greenhouses one or two hours after spraying. A documentary made by Colombian filmmaker Marta Rodriguez and her husband Jorge Silva over 20 years ago is still relevant according to a Colombian lawyer trying to improve working conditions and environmental standards in the industry. It exposes health problems experienced by workers. They include chronic respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. Workers also suffer from seizures, headaches, vomiting, weight loss, and leukemia.  Then there are skin problems and long- term toxicity issues.
Child labour is yet another problem of the industry according to reports such as one by Jocasta Shakespeare (1995) in “Colombia: Gardens of Shame,” which was produced by Stanley Foundation.  The report says that children provide growers with cheap labour. Although Colombia’s Ministry of Labor vehemently denies that children work in the flower industry, the report stated that there was ample evidence that children are collected daily by bus and taken to farms.
A 2006 report by International Labor Rights Fund on Latin American flower farms also referred to practices of child labor on flower farms. “El Comercio,” a daily newspaper in Ecuador, referred to a study that found child labor practiced on a variety of farms including flower farms. Of the 595 farms studied, 10% were found to be using child labor. Yet again, children are at the foundation of an industry’s competitive strategy.
There is hope, however, that florists and consumers would actively seek to purchase only flowers certified for good farming practices. “Fairtrade” and “VeriFlora” are two labels that represent flowers grown on farms with improved labour conditions. Maybe soon more labour- friendly bouquets of flowers will be purchased by informed consumers who want to make a difference.


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