The Human Cost of Flowers

Flowers are one of nature's wonders. Probably since the origins of the human race they have been useful and fascinating to people. The blooms and plants that bear them have offered food, medicine, and beauty—in fact, a beauty that has evolved for the sole purpose of pollination and propagation.

A fragrance that lingers. An artist's subject. A representation of love. Millions are bought every day all over the world, but not many know where those purchases from the florist come from or how they are grown. Even fewer are aware of the toll that those bouquets take on the people who grow them.


  • Overview of the industry
  • Expansion of the industry
  • Working conditions:
    • According to the Dole Food Company
    • The ILO report

A global industry

The cut flower industry ("floriculture") has a long history. It was virtually invented by the Netherlands around 300 years ago. During the 17th century, Dutch farmers were exporting tulips throughout Europe for substantial profit. Many of the techniques and technologies that make it possible to grow mass quantities of flowers for sale were pioneered in the Netherlands and spread to other countries. Today, the Dutch are the leading exporter of cut flowers in the world—fully half of all cut flowers are from there. On an average day, 19 million are sold through the world's largest flower auction.

The number two producer is Colombia, accounting for 11% of the total. About half of all cut flowers sold in the United States come from Colombia. In 1994, half of all the carnations imported to Britain came from there. The number is higher for the US and Canada: 92%. Close behind Colombia is Ecuador. In 1999, between the two countries, some 134,000 tons—US$470 million—came through Miami, Florida (the main hub for flowers/plants from Latin America). While only 3% of that was bound for Canada, it made up 47% of that country's total. Though Colombia and Ecuador are by far the biggest exporters in Latin American countries, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru are also involved with floriculture.

Though this work will concentrate on the Latin American countries, a number of other places also produce the world's flowers (primarily what are referred to as "third world" countries). Hong Kong and Japan are large markets importing mainly from countries in that region, including India, China, and Malaysia. Europe gets flowers from Latin America, but gets most from African countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (Israel also exports flowers for European consumption). Kenya is home to the world's largest flower farm, employing over 10,000 workers. Its industry has about 120 farms and some 40,000 people. In 1999, it exported US$140 million worth to Europe.

Growth of Latin American floriculture and the decline in North America

As the 1960s began, the US government, through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) decided to invest in the economies of Latin America, particularly Colombia. A stronger economy would serve more than one purpose. It would make Colombia better able to be a profitable trading partner and it was viewed as a means to keep the spectre of Communism out of the region (which, along with the Caribbean, the US has long felt was a part of its "sphere of influence" and hegemonic control). A country beholden to the US is going to be more willing to accept US foreign policy decisions relating to it. In fact, the later Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA, see below) contains a stipulation that none of the beneficiary countries be a Communist country. The act was written in 1991.

USAID felt that Colombia was too dependent on coffee and needed to diversify. It was found that the climate in places like the savanna near the capital city of Bogotá is ideal for growing flowers year round. Other important factors were abundant water, the nearby airport, and the cheap labor afforded by the Colombian people—a country with a significantly high unemployment rate (which doubled between 1990 and 2000, reaching over 20%) and a large population of rural poor. In 1965, 17 tons of carnations and chrysanthemums were exported to North America. The imports came in tariff free. Since, at that time, Japan and Europe closed their flower markets to Latin America, trade was almost entirely with the US and Canada.

With the help of USAID and the World Bank, Colombia was able to export one million rose stems to the US in 1971. No one was alarmed since it only accounted for two-tenths of 1% of the market. Ten years later the number was 72 million and 15% of the market. By 1995, it had exceeded ten times that with a total 752 million (66%). As the (cheaper) foreign flowers began taking over the US market, domestic growers did become alarmed. Complaints were filed with trade agencies but in all but one case the court found in favor of the foreign floricultural trade, claiming that the US growers faced no risk. And in the lone case, it refused to levy high duties.

An example of the sort of rulings by US courts comes from 1984 when Colombian roses made up 22% of the market:

Imports of fresh-cut roses from Colombia have had no material impact on the domestic industry.... The industry is in a healthy condition; domestic production, shipments, profits and productivity have all increased.... Potential imports from Colombia present no threat of material injury to the domestic industry because the industry has exhibited the strength to withstand import competition.

Meanwhile the Colombian flower trade continued to expand, with the help of the US government (and taxpayers). Domestic growers saw their market shrink and their profits disappear. They accused Colombia and other Latin American nations of flooding the market with flowers making it impossible to maintain business as they had for years (the US government denied that, though many believe its "determination" was politically motivated). Greenhouses and farms closed. The only way to stay afloat came from filling niche markets for exotics or flowers that could not survive the long trip from their source. Attempts to entreat the US government were answered mostly with indifference. The Wall Street Journal blamed the decline on the rise in cost for heating oil (to warm greenhouses) during the fuel crisis of the 1970s.

In 1991, the ATPA was signed into law by President George Bush I. It allowed duty-free or reduced duties on certain products from four Latin American countries: Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Among those items were cut flowers. As the 1990s progressed, it became even more important to the government as it was seen as a means to aid the "drug war" by providing another means for economic success other than coca. In Colombia, floriculture has been pushed over food crops, making importation of things that should be grown domestically necessary (things that can be imported so cheaply that farmers cannot compete for a living—that this often prods them into drug cultivation is another shameful part of the equation). Over the last 25 or so years, agricultural land, overall, has shrunk significantly, making even less available for staple crops.

All this further ingrained the ATPA as part US foreign policy leaving US domestic floriculture to fend for itself in a market where they could not compete—when a rose can be grown for about 17¢ and workers earn about US$140 a month, US growers simply cannot make adequate profits (numbers from Ecuador which exports about five million blooms a year to the US).

The ATPA expired in 2001 and after some amount of discussion and debate in congress, was renewed as part of the Trade Act of 2002 (it is now known as the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act) and currently is in place until 2006. An October 2002 report by the International Trade Commission (ITC) analyzed the effect of the ATPA on the US economy. It concluded that its effect on the "U.S. economy and consumers in 2001 was 'negligible'" and that the flower industry was one of only a few that was "potentially experiencing displacement of more than 5 percent as a result of ATPA imports." It also acknowledged that flowers (up until 2000, when it was replaced by copper and copper products) had been the top import under the act. As for its success in the drug war, the ITC was cautious. While it claimed it had a "positive effect on drug-crop eradication and crop substitution," the effect was "small" and "indirect" (

It was also pointed out that the positive effect was in Peru and Bolivia and not Colombia (by far, the key trafficking country in the hemisphere) which had increased coca cultivation. (It bears mention that prior to Colombia being the major coca producing country in the region, Peru was. When the crackdown came, the "business" simply picked up and moved to Colombia—highlighting the difficulty to enact some sort of state-based drug policy.)

The world according to Dole (and the ugly truth)

Not all US floriculture was floundering. One company was making a huge profit—the "largest producer and marketer of high-quality fruit, vegetables, and fresh cut flowers in the world, and the largest importer of fresh cut flowers in the United States" (according to Rick Harrah, the president of the Latin American division, in his self-introduction before the US Senate Finance Committee Subcommittee on International Trade): the Dole Food Company Inc..

Already a huge player in the fruit and vegetable market, in 1998, the company bought 23 flower farms in Colombia and Ecuador. Since then, its branch—Americaflor Ltda.—has become the world's (single) largest grower of fresh flowers. According to the August 2001 testimony alluded to above (intended to get Congress to extend the ATPA), Dole employs 11,133 workers in Colombia and 1,028 in Ecuador and around 400 in the US—this probably means "directly" (and does not include "casual" employees; see below) and the numbers are about a year and a half old. The current website claims that Dole employs some 59,000 worldwide, to give an idea of just how large Dole's flower industry is.

While domestic flower growers were suffering, Dole was flooding the market with (literally) tons of Latin American flowers, made for a pittance and imported duty-free courtesy of the ATPA. One cannot help but wonder just how much of the economic assistance that the ATPA was intended to provide countries like Colombia and Ecuador actually stayed in those countries and how much ended up in the coffers of the US transnational corporation (in 2001, flower export only made up 4% of the Colombia's foreign sales). Without the ATPA, Dole's profit margin would drop (according to Harrah)—a profit margin that is "already barely two percent." In 2001, Dole made over 4.4 billion dollars (in all divisions).

How would this affect the company's operations (beyond the obvious "bottom line")? According to Harrah, it would "negatively impact the broader societies in which we work." He bragged about the company and its branches being "champions of environmental quality and worker welfare" and being "ranked among the top 10 companies in the Fortune 500 in terms of environmental and social responsibility by the Council on Economic Priorities," stating that they were in effect in both Colombia and Ecuador. He spoke of how Americaflor had been given a high certification ("the first flower producer in the world," emphasis in the report) for environmental standards.

Further, without the tax break afforded by ATPA, he claimed, the company would have to "reevaluate its exposure in the Andean cut flower industry" which would "potentially reduce jobs and remove certain incentives for environmental and labor protections in areas where we currently operate" (emphasis in report). Reread the statement. Without the ATPA, there would be a reduced incentive for "environmental and labor protections." (Interestingly, he quickly moved on to championing the effect on the narcotics trade and the money it was making for Americans—mainly those in the service industry, specifically mentioning Wal-Mart and K Mart.)

As Dole states on its website, it has a "policy to comply with all applicable laws and regulations at all times wherever we operate, to take all practicable steps to promote health, safety and environmental protection," a "goal to prevent adverse effects on health, safety and the environment" and a promise that it "will not use, anywhere, any product banned for reasons of unacceptable health or environmental risk by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union or the World Health Organization." As for labor, it states that it pays competitive wages, supports unions, "Employee welfare and protection is a top priority," and "does not knowingly purchase products from any commercial producers who violate applicable child labor laws."

Granted, changes may have taken place, and the quotations from the official site are more recent (though the HRW report mentioned below quoted them from 2001), but what about Dole's practices at the time Harrah was giving the "official version"? The water from the savanna near Bogotá has been largely used up and needs to be piped in from the capital. What there is, is also contaminated by the excessive and dangerous pesticides used in floriculture (pesticides will receive a separate section). The soil is all but barren and "fruitful" because of the heavy use of fertilizers which also contaminate the water. It is well known that both countries have lax environmental and labor standards and that (especially in Ecuador) even those are often ignored.

Unions are (still) discouraged and blatant labor rights violations go on. Employers who wrongfully dismiss an employee only have to pay a small fine. Eight months after the testimony was given, Human Rights Watch published a report on the banana industry in Ecuador, specifically on obstacles to worker organization and child labor. About 70% of the children interviewed (45 interviewees) claimed they had worked on a Dole plantation. Their average age was eleven.

The children reported that they worked on the plantations while planes overhead sprayed fungicide and other chemicals. They also directly applied pesticide to plants after harvest. The average workday was eleven hours (something illegal under Ecuadorian law). The work was dangerous, often injuring themselves without access to treatment. They had to carry heavy loads (often over 100 pounds) and suffered chronic back problems. They were usually given poor sanitation access (in one case, none at all) and the girls (girls: the three interviewed were 11, 12, and 12) reported sexual harassment. This was corroborated by an adult worker who described the swearing and lewd comments, the humiliation, and the groping.

It is common in both countries (in both the floriculture and fruit industries) for pregnant women to be summarily dismissed or not hired at all. In some cases, pregnancy tests are forced on the women in order to determine their "state." This isn't always the case. Many pregnant women work just as hard as everyone else, handling the plants and soil laden with toxic chemicals.

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) has been campaigning against Dole for unfair labor practices since 2001, beginning with the treatment of banana workers in the Philippines. In July of 2002, the company paid US$24 million to 3,000 Honduran banana workers for their exposure to dangerous pesticides (known to cause cancer and sterility). This practice had gone on for thirty years.

As for the high certification standard? It turns out (as reported by HRW) that Dole is only a signatory to it and that means it must make sure that the subsidiaries and third-person companies its uses for most of its plantation production comply in a "reasonable" amount of time. That amount of time is not specified.

(None of this is meant to single out Dole as the only violator or that it has, in some way, participated in all violations. But Dole is the largest company in the industry, making its inclusion representative and significant.)

Reading between the numbers: the ILO report

In 1999, the International Labor Organization (ILO) put out a working paper on "Employment and working conditions in the Ecuadorian flower industry." It used a field survey of nine plantations (no more than 5% of the total at the time), two marketing companies, and information from "discussions with flower industry workers." It discusses the industry financially, governmental policies, and prospects for the future (quite positive). The largest section deals with "Employment and working conditions." There the numbers give a suggestion of the deeper story that the paper's intended "objectivity" and pro-business/development stance.

Reading through it, one gets the impression that, though conditions are less than optimal, they aren't really that bad, are improving, and things will be better. That conditions were not demonstrably better three years after the paper was put out, suggests otherwise. The conclusion section gives twice as much space to "Business issues" than to "Labor issues," discussing the need for better marketing and transportation, growth and competitiveness. It does note that workers need better training, especially in safety and handling of chemicals, unions should be supported, and "nurseries, private medical insurance and training" need to be provided for workers—"as a strategy for enhancing the overall competitiveness" (not because workers' rights demand better treatment). It also adds that "a knowledge of birth control would also be useful so that workers can participate in their own family planning," something that sounds suspect and doubtfully would occur in relation to first world countries workers.

The "labor" portion again mentions the need for unions and again mentions the "family planning" issue: "Since a majority of workers are young women, birth control and sexual relation issues should be included in training activities for the prevention of unplanned pregnancies." It claims that there is a "relatively high educational level," among the workers, something missing from other sources which tend to point out the lack of education, particularly among women and children who are missing education due to working on the plantations.

On the other hand, it is a survey of only nine plantations in Latin America's second largest floricultural country, with a total of 542 employees (as of November 1997). The paper lists the number of workers in the industry as 19,758 (again, one suspects "casual workers" are not and cannot be adequately counted) in 1996. Just how representative the survey is, is not known. Nor how accurate the "company" numbers given are. Since, as of 2002, there are 60,000 rose workers in Ecuador, any problems are most likely worse.

Unlike most surveys and reports, the nine plantations had about 60% male workers. In both Colombia and Ecuador, females make up 60% to 70% (child or young workers are not addressed, though it is reported that about one-fifth of Ecuadorian rose workers are under 18). The average ages are close (males tending to be about two years older). For workers, it is 22.89 and 24.56. In administration it is 28.29 and 30.57. Unsurprisingly, males outnumber females in administration and transport/marketing. Women make up about 75% of workers in production ("ranging from land preparation to sowing, cultivation, management, harvest, aftrer-harvest and fumigation").

The success of employing these young people is demonstrated (according to the paper) by an increase in the sale of electrical appliances (from new discount stores) in the area surveyed. On the other hand, the companies have shut down most "social activities." This is because they believe it leads to unplanned pregnancies.

The survey found about 106 new hires for every 100 terminations (about 12% claimed to be company decisions). It also showed a 30% turnover rate per year (not counting administration/marketing). It called this "on the high side." The average length of employment was found to be 1.22 years, blamed on the age of the workers since they "naturally believe they will always find more employment." It is claimed that "Companies try to contract temporary work as little as possible."

This is contrary to most reports from outside the industry, where "casual" or temporary workers are extensively used because they don't receive the benefits of "official" employees and can be paid at the absolute minimum wage (which is already low)—in fact, some 65% of Kenyan flower workers are casuals. In Colombia, many workers are hired (by subcontractors) for six-, three-, or one month contracts (as short as 12 to 15 days).

This is fairly commonplace throughout much of the floriculture industry in Africa and Latin America. Keeping the workers in that category, companies can get around the (often lax) labor law enforcement and work them excessive hours for little pay without spending money on such things as protective equipment, medical assistance, maternity leave. Some companies have been known to keep workers as "temporary" for years. The discouragement of unions helps make this possible (as well as governments that seem unwilling to enforce their own labor laws).

Those that get paid, do—among the plantations surveyed—make more than the (very low) minimum wage, with management (no surprise) making fairly good money. There were some "compensation" given employees according to law, including overtime (overtime is paid, but paid at the regular pay rate), insurance, vacation, transport, and some others. Workers in production get the least compensation.

The paper places in the "Additional benefits" (in the "Compensation packages" subsection) things like uniforms, transport, meals, medical services, et cetera. While all nine provided uniforms, other reports and interviewed workers have pointed out that they are often ill-fitting, left unrepaired when torn, and no services are provided for washing them. This is especially important for those working with the toxins, as it increases level of exposure. Further, workers having no choice but to wash the uniforms with their regular clothes, spreads the contaminants. With the fairly common lack of adequate washing facilities (let alone a means to shower after working with the chemicals), many employees eat and smoke still in contact with the chemicals.

An important datum is that only four of the nine provided a medical service. Other reports show that when those services are provided, they are doctors hired by the company at a consultancy fee for weekly visits. This system has led to the companies being able to "hush up" any medical issues outside of the "business" through bribes and favors. According to an Ecuadorian Red Cross official, "Corruption is everywhere" (Mother Jones). This is ideal for the companies, since doctors outside of their employ report significant health problems among the workers (something endemic to the industry).

Another benefit mentioned in the paper is the workweek—typically 40 hours over six days with a certain amount of mandatory overtime (between four and six hours). As much as ten hours during the peak seasons. It then points out that though the schedule only gives workers one day of rest (Sunday), "looking on the bright side young workers have one less day for entertainment, where high consumption of alcohol is customary." The writers of the paper are not quoting anyone but making their own observation. Presumably, this gives the women less time to get themselves pregnant, as well.

Other parts, relating to illnesses and safety concerning chemical exposure, will be addressed later, but as for other risks, the paper points out the problems without condemnation (these are things that need a little work, rather than things that are harming human beings). It notes the companies do not provide adequate training (or even information) in handing of equipment or chemicals. The State does little evaluation, keeps no record of medical visits or treatment for workers, has no published regulations for the chemicals, and few visits by the few labor inspectors it has. The workers reject the protective equipment and uniforms and "A majority fail to inform themselves of the risks."

It then finishes with a discussion of the "Green Seal"—a certification granted by the German Flower Label Program (FLP) meant to reward and encourage trade with companies that take care of workers and the environment. In 1997, only five of 179 companies qualified. A program intended to get the companies certification was in place starting in 1997. During the trial phase of that program (1995) companies were assured "that [it] was not an inspection programme with penalties but a support tool to improve the penetration of flowers in European markets." The European Union has rejected Ecuador's national version of the Green Seal. Certification under that program is a self-evaluation process conducted by members of the Environmental Office of the Colombian Association of Flower-Growers, who verify the companies' evaluations.

It is encouraging that more and more companies are trying for certification through the Green Seal or the International Standardization Organization (ISO—the certification that Dole's Harrah bragged about). The US requires compliance with the ISO (at least in some measure) for its imports. But things are not changing quickly or substantively for the most part. The very existence of such things points to a need for them due to an already existing set of problems. Unfortunately, even when it is related to the profit motive (as it assuredly is), companies are dragging their feet.

As the paper shows, there are serious problems in the flower industry in Ecuador (problems typical of nearly the entire industry). Problems far more important than marketing, transport, and the bottom line. Unfortunately, since the paper, little has actually changed.

Continue to Part 2

Sources will appear at the end of Part 2

Flo"ri*cul`ture [L. flos, floris, flower + cultura culture.]

The cultivation of flowering plants.


© Webster 1913.

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