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Flowers: Symbols of Love or Symbols of Suffering

by Jennifer Mustillo
December 2006

Whether itís Valentineís Day, a birthday, an anniversary, or Motherís Day, what girl doesnít like to receive flowers? Flowers are an American tradition that can carry a message of love, friendship, purity, enthusiasm, gratitude or happiness, but the cut-flower industry displays the rose as a dangerous, poisonous health hazard to the children laborers. People never see behind the beauty.

In just five years, Ecuadorian roses, have become the new status flower in the United States. The volcanic soil, perfect temperatures and abundant sunlight help generate $240 million a year and tens of thousands of jobs. The lack of drastic seasonal changes in these southern countries allows for a steady production of flowers all year round and these impoverished areas will always be able to supply workers at cheap rates.

There are three main countries where flowers are produced. These countries include Columbia, Ecuador, and Kenya. Generally Latin American countries provide the United States and African countries provide Europe. The cut flower industry is one of Kenya's major export earners, generating billions of shillings per year. According to the Kenya Flower Council, Kenya is the largest supplier of cut flowers to European markets. Kathini Caines, general secretary of the Kenya Women Workers Organization (KWWO), says that 800 out of a total 12,000 members of her union are laborers on flower farms. They report cases of sexual harassment, no maternity leave, overcrowded housing, low pay, and other terrible working conditions.

Cut flowers are Colombia's new miracle export, hailed as an alternative to cocaine. Fifty percent of the flowers sold in the U.S. were grown in the Savanna region near BogotŠ, Colombia. Colombia mainly exports roses, carnations and lilies, but there are many other flowers grown on their plantations. The children that work on these plantations start at dawn and continuously work until 10:00 pm. in order to reach shipping quotas. Leading up to Valentineís Day, when the sale of roses is at its height in the United States, laborers in Ecuador begin working at 7:00 am and may not leave until 3:00 am the next day, putting in a twenty hour day only to be fired once the holiday passes and the demand from the US decreases to a more normal level.

A recent study revealed that many children assume positions in this industry because of their parents. In Columbia, child laborers tasks include digging flower beds, weeding, pruning, and cutting stems. The children work in the cultivation areas, cold rooms, and the packaging areas. Children also plant, place guiding wires, cut and rubber band stems, classify and package the flowers, and load the trucks. With advancements in technology, computers are used to monitor each worker's production rate. Because many of the Columbian laws are not heavily enforced, children donít receive the minimum wage of 118,000 pesos a month, they only earn 66,000 pesos. The actual number of children workers in these countries is uncertain because the industries do not usually admit to using child labor. Generally, the children work around forty-five hours a week.

Luis, a child working in Columbia, says that the farms like to employ children because they have small hands and can work fast. Though he is exposed to pesticides, some of which are banned in the United States and Europe, and becomes sick from them, he continues to endure the plantation labor because his family needs the money. These toxins can cause miscarriages, mutations of the fetus, disruption of the central nervous system leading to paralysis or epilepsy, and cancer. Other reactions to the pesticides include vomiting, dizziness, and loss of vision. Many women, who are now sick from working on these plantations and no longer able to work, watch their children continue to work in the flower trade and are powerless to stop it. Most patients in Columbian hospitals work in the flower industry. Two-thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers reportedly suffer from work-related health problems, including headaches, nausea, impaired vision, conjunctivitis, rashes, asthma, stillbirths, miscarriages, congenital malformations and respiratory and neurological problems. When the children become sick they donít receive sick pay or medical care because most are employed on temporary contracts, which do not include benefits. In addition, run-off from the farms contaminates the water supply with pesticides.

Because of the economy and weak laws in these countries, children are unable to overcome the conditions that bound them to their fate. Many children were living the streets until they were hired into this industry. They are so thrilled to be working that they are unable to see the effects of the pesticides until many years later when the damage has already been done. ďItís a time bomb,Ē says Dr. Gabriel Rueda, who is working with Cactus, an independent social-welfare group in Bogota. When they are eight or nine, we see children mixing pesticides in the tanks without gloves, masks, or any protection. We may not see the effects until five to twenty years later when they can no longer move their hands. Many farms use very dangerous organ chlorides, which are prohibited in many countries. Mercedes Sosa, a fifteen year old Columbian laborer, says: "In your country, flowers are a symbol of love. Here they are a symbol of suffering."

The cut-flower industry proves to be a deadly combination trying to find a balance of keeping up with the demand in the United States and the lack of workersí protections in many of the Latin American countries. The workers are rarely trained and not provided with proper protection against the pesticides. Many of the children working in the flower trade are too scared to speak about the terrible conditions. Conditions are often so reprehensible that visitors are prohibited. Armed guards and barbed wire surround the plantations. Workers' right to organize is not respected in the flower industry. Of 300 flower companies in Ecuador, only four have unions. Workers are afraid to try to form or join unions because their employers threaten to fire them if they do. Blacklisting is a common practice in these countries.

Many organizations have protested the situations of these slaves. The Flower Label Program or FLP, along with the International Labor Organization strive to create improved conditions on these plantations. Industries in Latin America and Africa should first abide by national child labor regulations. All flower workers should be provided with free waterproof and chemical-resistant protective gear and preliminary training in the proper use of chemicals and risk prevention should be given to all workers before they are sent onto the plantations. Industries should also make sure all workers leave the greenhouses before fumigation occurs. Laws on maximum hours per week and minimum wage should be complied with and workers should be paid accordingly for overtime hours. Also discrimination should be eliminated. New workers should not be subjected to illegal pregnancy tests, and pregnancy should not be the basis for firing a worker.

The FLP has attempted to work with companies in Columbia an Ecuador. In Columbia, they have not been very successful, but few farms in Ecuador are FLP-accepted. Also the market of organic flowers is strongly encouraged.

The flower market has had a positive affect on the individual countries as a whole. It has helped pave roads and built sophisticated irrigation systems. Also the construction on the international airport between Quito and Cayambe can be attributed to the income from the cut-flower market. Though this money provides progress to the economy of these countries, the money should also be allotted to the workers in order to establish a fair wage and create better working conditions. The Campaign, launched by the ILRF on Motherís Day in 2003, will pressure cut-flower producers to respect and improve working conditions and health protections, and pressure US retailers to demand change from their suppliers. The Campaign will also work directly with partner organizations and flower workers in Colombia and Ecuador to educate workers about their rights under the labor code and provide legal advice services for workers and assistance in filing complaints regarding unfair dismissals and discrimination.

It is important to remember that child labor goes far beyond the scandals of huge corporations such as Nike and further than the shoe industry. We take for granted the little things such as flowers that mean the world to us but are the cause of much suffering among women and children that work on these plantations. They are robbed of their education and their lives, but even in our hectic lives there are ways we can help. It is suggested that we approach our florists and ask for organic flowers and we are encouraged to voice our opinions, otherwise the cut-flower industry is doomed to remain a terrible reality.

Sources Used:


Available online at http://ihscslnews.org/

Immaculata Child Slave Labor News
Immaculata High School, Somerville, NJ

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