Floriculture in Columbia: Foreign Exchange at The Cost of Exploitation of Women

In the present world, floriculture and horticulture has become a major foreign exchange earner for Latin America and more recently for Africa as well. While the major exports of Africa are directed towards the European markets, the Latin American industry exports are directed to the U.S. The two major countries which have the largest share in the fresh cut flowers export in the region are Colombia and Ecuador.

The Flower Label Programme-or more popularly known as FLP (related to unions and code of conducts in cut flower production units. Also refer to case study on Floriculture in Kenya under Africa case study in this website), adopted by the African floriculture sector has also been applied to these two countries, but without much success. In fact a closer look suggests important differences between the Colombian and Ecuadorian cut-flower sectors. To date, Ecuadorian producers have ignored or cautiously expressed interest in the FLP, while Colombian producers remain united in their opposition to the program.

Case study of Columbia

Floriculture in ColumbiaCut-flower cultivation began in Colombia in 1965, when USAID promoted it as a substitute for coca. Colombia has since become the second largest flower exporting country in the world, with 11 percent of the world market in 2002. Half of the flowers sold in the US are grown in the Savanna region near Bogotá. Flowers are Colombia’s fourth-largest export earner.
Only four percent of Colombian flower workers belong to unions, and most of the unions present in the industry are created and controlled by the employers. Colombian producers have been much more reluctant to accept the International Code of Conduct and FLP than their Ecuadorian counterparts. The only two Colombian companies that have been certified by FLP joined the program in 2001. The conditions at these farms are indeed noticeably superior to the conditions at non-certified farms; all workers have indefinite work contracts and salaries are 30 percent higher than salaries on other plantations. Still, neither of these farms have unions.

Women in floriculture

A study by the ILRF on Colombia flower industry in 2003 on the occupational health and safety and the labor rights of workers in the cut flower industries of highlights a number of significant difficulties. The major tasks assigned to women in the industry are as follows:

Tasks assigned to:

• Flower selection
• Classification
• Packing
• Flower arrangements

• Fumigating
• Construction
• Infrastructure installation

• Tending flower beds
• Plant cultivation

The study revealed that most of the roses and carnations produced in Colombia are exported to the United States where they are sold in florist shops, supermarkets, and on online retail sites. There are over 100,000 workers in Colombia, working to grow, harvest, and package these flowers. About 66% of these Colombian flower workers are women. A detail of the export destinations are given as:

Production details:
Roses  —-    48 %
Carnations, Mini Carnations  —– 24 %
Chrysanthemums  ——-    4 %
Other  ——–    24 %

6,544 hectares, located in the;
Bogotá Savanna (85%)
Rionegro, Antioquia (12%).

Export percentage of Production:  98%

Value of exports, 2004-05, in millions of US$:

North America   $596.61  85%
European Union     $62.18    9%
Other countries     $44.64    6%

Job Details:

Direct jobs:    94,271
Indirect jobs:    80,130
Women:    66%

(Source: Asocolflores 2006)

These workers routinely experience a number of labor rights violations. The kind of exploitation faced by the women is similar in nature to those faced by their counterparts in other export-oriented industries. Few of them are detailed below:

• Violations of the right to organize: Workers are prevented from organizing independent unions through tactics such as illegal firings, threats to close plantations where workers are organizing, and black-listing unionists. Third-party contracting practices also severely limit freedom of association. The subcontracted workers are shuffled between different companies every few months so that their employers can avoid having to affiliate them with social security, and a constantly changing workforce also inhibits serious attempts at organizing. Of the hundreds of flower companies located in Colombia, the most important worker organizing effort in years is being crushed by the country’s largest flower owner and exporter, U.S.-based Dole (more information below).

• Sexual harassment: A 2005 study by ILRF and Ecuadorian NGO partners found that over 55% of women flower workers have been the victims of sexual harassment. Many women said that they had been asked out by their bosses or supervisors, who offered to improve their jobs in exchange. Alarmingly, we also learned that 19% of flower workers had been forced to have sex with a coworker or superior and 10% had been sexually attacked.

• Forced pregnancy testing: Women workers are commonly required to take a pregnancy test or show proof of sterilization as a condition for hiring, as employers hope to avoid providing paid maternity leave.

• Occupational health and safety: Use of toxic pesticides and fungicides has caused work-related health problems—including skin rashes, respiratory problems, eye problems, and miscarriages—affecting over half of Colombian flower workers. An Oxfam report from 2004 reports that Ecuadorian flower companies use more than 30 different pesticides, and an ILO survey found that only 22% of Ecuadorian flower companies trained their workers in the use of chemicals. In Colombia, according to the Victoria International Development Education Association, doctors in flower-producing regions report up to 5 cases of acute poisoning per day, and a study by the Colombian National Institute of Health found an elevated rate of miscarriages, premature births, and congenital malformations among flower workers.

US Trade and the flower industry:

FloricultureFlower imports from Colombia receive duty-free treatment under the Andean Trade Preferences Act. By law, the ATPA is supposed to condition these trade benefits on improvements in worker rights in these countries. However, labor rights violations in the flower industry and other sectors, including violations of the right to freedom of association, continue unchecked. In fact, the US-Colombia FTA does not provide any mechanism to enforce local and international labor rights standards in Colombia. It is important for the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Congress to conduct a serious review of the labor rights situation in Columbia when the ATPA next comes up for renewal.

The U.S. Trade Representative has also negotiated a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. There is rising concerns about the increasing free market access without effective enforcement of labor rights which might further remove cut flower producers’ incentives to improve working conditions.

The Dole Story:

Dole is the only and the largest multinational company that owns flower farms in Colombia. In late 2004, workers founded a new union, Sintrasplendor, at Splendor Flowers; this was the first independent union that had been successfully established in a Dole-owned flower company in Colombia. When Sintrasplendor received its registration from the Ministry of Social Protection, the company presented a list of objections, asking the Ministry to revoke the registration. Splendor Flowers used various forms of persecution against Sintrasplendor, including threats that union affiliates will be fired; assigning extra work on days when the union has planned assemblies and other activities; hostility, including via the presence of members of the Armed Forces and police at union activities held off company property. The company successfully convinced the Ministry to revoke the union’s registration, but after a lengthy appeal the workers reinstated the union.

Dole has also used a variety of ploys to deny Sintrasplendor its right to a collective bargaining agreement, such as signing a different collective bargaining agreement with the company-backed union, and refusing to support a fair process to determine union representation at the company. On October 12, 2006, in its final blow against the union, Dole announced that it is closing the Corzo farm at Splendor Flowers.

Such tendencies to form organizations and unions are positive steps towards the improvement of the persisting exploitative conditions of the women engaged behind the production of beautiful flowers. It is important now to protect the rights and enforce proper laws to ensure the labour rights as well as basic human rights on the flower farms.

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