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LABOUR-COLOMBIA: Flower Power – But Not for the Workers

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Aug 7 2006 (IPS) - The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between Colombia and the United States that could be signed in October or November this year will maintain the tariff exemptions already enjoyed by Colombia’s flourishing flower industry. But there are no plans for higher wages and better working conditions for the industry’s 100,000 workers.

The floriculture sector has grown over four decades to the point where exports were worth over 870 million dollars in 2005.

In just 35 years, Colombia has become the second largest exporter of fresh cut flowers in the world, after the Netherlands, says the web site of the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES), a private entity created in 1973 which now has 200 members.

Colombia is the main supplier of flowers to the United States, where it has a 60 percent market share, and the fourth supplier to the European Union, providing four percent of its imports.

“The growth of the industry is important, of course. But behind this positive image, human rights are being trampled. The workers, especially the women (who account for 65 percent of the industry’s workforce), lack the safeguards needed for decent working conditions,” lawyer Diana Alexandra Castañeda, of the non-governmental Corporación Cactus which provides legal advice and support to workers, told IPS.

Flower cultivation began in the late 1960s in Mosquera, Madrid and Funza, towns located 23 to 29 kilometres west of Bogotá, where the land is suitable for crops and livestock.


At that time, the area was inhabited by small farmers who supplied produce and livestock products to the population in the surrounding area, including Bogotá.

The process began with a few tentative forays into the cultivation of roses, pompons, carnations and alstroemerias. The original businesses were family enterprises, and the sons and daughters of the first generation of workers remember how their parents were able to buy basic but adequate houses with the income from their work.

By 1995, exports had climbed to 475 million dollars, according to ASOCOLFLORES.

Soon afterwards, in 1998, the U.S.-based multinational food giant Dole entered the business and “bought Splendor Flowers, which became one of the largest companies in Latin America with 2,500 workers, 1,700 of them direct employees and 800 on temporary contracts,” said trade unionist Beatriz Fuentes, the president of the Sintrasplendor Union, one of the six unions organised by flower industry workers in the last decade.

“That was when the hiring systems began to change, and the number of stems to be cut and bouquets to be packed were increased,” Fuentes said.

Flower cultivation spread to the towns of Tocancipá, Gachancipá, Sopó, Chocontá, Suesca and Chía, located 30 to 68 kilometres north of Bogotá.

The department (province) of Cundinamarca, where these towns are situated, contributes 85 percent of domestic flower production. The department of Antioquia, northwest of Bogotá, contributes 12 percent, and those of Valle and Cauca, to the southwest, three percent.

As the colourful and fragrant flower industry grew, problems began to arise from the use of fertilisers and pesticides without due precautions.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) international standards, workers should not enter the fields for at least 24 hours after spraying with pesticides or herbicides.

However, surveys reported in “Detrás de las flores, los derechos” (“Flowers first, rights trail behind”), carried out by Corporación Cactus between 2000 and 2004 found that “the workers are not removed from the fields during fumigation with pesticides, which contaminate their bodies and clothing and expose them to toxic effects.”

One of the most serious cases was that of Carmen Elvita. In May 2005 she was diagnosed by the Toxicology Department of the National University as having “motor-sensory polyneuropathy with axonal and myelinic involvement.” In other words, she had major mobility problems and loss of sensation, after 10 years as a floriculture worker.

Elvita has only partially recovered from her disabilities after more than a year.

Not enough is known about the harm agrochemicals used in floriculture can cause in water, soil, or foodstuffs consumed by animals which are then eaten by persons.

“Milch cows fed on carnation residues produce milk contaminated with pesticides at concentrations higher than those permitted by the WHO,” says a report on “Determination of the degradability of toxic insecticides and pesticides used on carnations,” by the Zootechnical School of La Salle University and the National Institute of Health. Floriculture waste from roses mixed with urea and fertilisers is used to prepare soil for pastures. Pesticide residues have been detected in this compost.

There are other problems, too, beyond agrochemical pollution and toxicity.

Esperanza Cerero is recovering from her third surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome. According to the Ministry for Social Protection, this painful affliction of the hand and wrist is due to excessive repetitive movements. Floriculture has the highest rate of this workplace ailment, accounting for 32 percent of all patients, 89 percent of whom are women, the ministry said.

The problem arises because workers do not rotate between different jobs: cutting flowers, packing them in baskets, or stripping stems. The companies require a work rate of 350 cut buds per hour.

“They do not demand this of me, given my illness and because I am protected as a member of the Untraflores union. But it’s a real problem for most of the operatives,” Cerero said.

Higher output is needed for St. Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and year-end festivities. At these times, companies take on up to 25 percent more employees.

Dole, for instance, hires up to 600 more workers, largely supplied by companies known as Associated Work Cooperatives (CTA), which were promoted by the labour reform of 2002, when current President Alvaro Uribe first came to power.

Hiring CTA employees relieves the flower producing company of the direct responsibility for making their social security payments. “Women in particular are affected, as they are subject to arbitrary dismissal without just cause, when they are pregnant, or before they can benefit from maternity rights such as time off for breastfeeding,” lawyer Castañeda said.

“Unemployment and the high numbers of displaced persons (caused by the armed conflict) also suit the CTAs, because many people will accept work under difficult or anomalous conditions, since they desperately need the income. The women are often the breadwinners for their children, and frequently for their own parents as well,” Castañeda added.

In contrast, the flower industry has benefited from domestic economic reforms, and from the U.S. Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA), passed in 1991 as a trade component of the United States’ anti-drugs policy.

In 2002, the ATPA was replaced by the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), under which existing tariff exemptions will remain in place until Dec. 31, 2006.

And now, the imminence of the FTA presents an opportunity to maintain preferential tariffs for Colombian flowers, as well as other products.

But the FTA does not address improvements in working conditions, such as wage hikes in the flower sector. At present workers are paid the minimum wage, which this year is equivalent to 163 dollars a month.

 
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