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The Human Cost of Flowers

First read Part 1

"Floriculture" (the cut flower industry) is a worldwide industry. About half of the cut flowers that make it to the local florist are produced and exported from places like Latin America and Africa where labor is cheap, working conditions harsh, and medical problems from exposure to pesticides widespread. Primarily focusing on Latin America (particularly Colombia and Ecuador), this work attempts to expose and outline the shame of an industry.


  • Support and organization
  • Health and pesticide issues
  • Final notes

Blacklists and Cactus

As is common in "third world" countries, worker organization and unionization is at least discouraged, at worst actively suppressed (Colombia is one of the hemisphere's leaders in the murders of trade unionists). Even if a union forms, it is often "dealt" with. In 1996, workers at a Colombian flower plantation managed to organize. Management began firing them one by one. In retaliation, workers occupied the offices and grounds, then tried to produce and market the flowers themselves. The occupation lasted a few months before the company got a court order allowing them to fire the rest. Without a means of representation and action on their behalf, workers are left at the mercy of the State which ignores the problem and the companies which are its source.

One of the ways used to discourage/punish speaking out or organizing is through "blacklisting." Ecuadorian workers are well aware that making their opinions and concerns about the working conditions known can get them put on a blacklist, which is maintained by many companies to keep track of such troublemakers who pose a threat to the status quo. Being on a list not only makes it pretty much impossible to get a job on any of the flower plantations, it often makes it difficult (at best) to get a job elsewhere. Even doctors who say too much about people they treat can be placed on such lists, losing them patients (some who need help most of all) from the farms, as well as possibly making trouble for them in their own practice.

Things aren't completely dark in this regard. While unionization is still difficult (at best), there are sources of support that some can turn to. In Colombia, they have the benefit of Cactus, an organization founded in 1995 by European nonprofit and religious groups (such as Catholic Women of Austria and Oxfam Great Britain). Cactus is a source for legal advice and other important information for workers (such as pesticide use and safety which is not provided by the companies).

The name was chosen as a symbol of the workers: it grows in the desert, representing the harsh working conditions; it has thorns for protection, which is needed if they want to persevere; and the cactus flower represents (not only the obvious) beauty and hope in the world. With a staff of only six, the group hosts a weekly radio program and sets up informational tents outside plantations where worker disputes are taking place. It also looks to drum up support and solidarity among local people (often finding allies in the church).

But Cactus is not without its own troubles. Sarah Cox, for an article in the Vancouver (Canada) newsmagazine, the Georgia Straight, phoned the Bogotá offices of the group, only to be told to email her questions instead. It seems that Cactus is considered dangerous and had been receiving threatening phone calls at the previous group headquarters (prompting a move). Starting with the ominous "Something bad is going to happen," a month later it escalated to the caller identifying himself as a member of a paramilitary unit operating near some of the plantations, saying "Keep fucking around with flower cultivation and you will pay" (www.zmag.org).

This is a serious threat, as the paramilitaries are recognized as having killed more people in Colombia than the government forces or the leftist FARC. They were first organized by the drug cartels in the 1980s as a means to protect themselves from the then current favorite means of funding for the FARC, kidnapping and ransom (still popular with them). As years went on, the wealthy landowners (not a few of whom were either part of the narcotraffiking or connected in some way) and even the government. Despite governmental denouncements of the paramilitaries, many work in conjunction with government forces or even pay off army or local law enforcement. When there is an arrest, there is rarely a conviction and threats to the judges and others involved are common. In 2000, Colombia saw 4,000 political killings (not all paramilitary). One of the groups often targeted is trade unionists.

As previously noted (see Part 1), there are some efforts to maintain some sort of labor, health, and environmental standards. The Green Seal and the ISO were already discussed. Another program is the International Code of Conduct for the production of Cut Flowers (ICC). Flowers produced under its standards carry an identifying label (a "fair flowers" label). Some sellers (primarily in Europe) only buy flowers approved under the ICC. Switzerland's two largest supermarkets sell these "fair flowers," accounting for about 65% of the flower sales in that country. Smaller florists both there and in Germany also sell flowers that meet ICC standards.

The ICC was started in 1998 by European nonprofit groups and unions attempting to promote worker and human rights, environmental standards during production, and an international labor standard. As for the labor part of the ICC, this means a 48 hour work week, living wages, job security. As of 2002, two of Colombia's farms had signed the ICC agreement (out of some 500 total farms). About four dozen in Latin America and Africa have signed. It seems self-evident that this number is woefully small.

Does it work? When the company complies with the standards, it does. Employees get better wages, working conditions, benefits. Fewer pesticides are used and exposure to the chemicals is minimized. Far from some utopian solution for the workers—it is still hard, harsh work and wages are higher relative to similar work—it is significant progress, though the program is still too small to make substantial industrywide (or even countrywide) changes. Resistance to the program by producers and marketers will continue to make it difficult for it to spread.

Nor does it help that importers seem disinterested. The Marketing and Communications coordinator for Canada's 11,000 member Flowers Canada (a floriculture association) said he hadn't heard of the ICC and hadn't "heard any rumblings about labour conditions" in Colombia (www.zmag.org). Without some sort of demand by those selling the product to consumers (or demand from consumers), programs like the ICC, ISO, or the Green Seal will always be the exception rather than the rule.

Poison, health, and the life of a worker

While unfair labor practices, low wages, and harsh working conditions are serious and widespread problems, it is the health danger of exposure to the many chemicals during production that are the most serious. Though individual numbers are not available (in some case probably for good reason), a 1990 report from the World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme ("Public Health Impact of Pesticides Used in Agriculture") revealed that pesticides had caused 20,000 deaths and three million poisonings worldwide. Even though floriculture is dwarfed by the rest of [agriculture worldwide, these numbers are significant enough to cause concern.

To get a better idea of the scope of chemical use in the floriculture industry, it is helpful to look at flower's journey through production and transport (the example is primarily using the carnation). It can also serve as a means or looking at the damage done along the way.

First, the soil must be prepared. It is not enough to have good soil—in order to get the kind of flowers that the consumer demands, nature needs considerable help. The process begins by dumping large quantities of pesticides on the soil to ensure that no insect remains (this includes earthworms, which actually help enrich the soil). In addition to insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and nematocides are used. Then seeds or cuttings are planted in the earth, followed by fertilizers and plant growth regulators.

As they begin to grow, meshing is strung over them to guarantee they grow straight (also demanded by the consumer). Crooked flowers or ones that manage to be subject to pests that somehow escape the gauntlet of chemicals are broken off and discarded. Discarded plants and other biological waste were once a serious problem because they were used as feed for beef or dairy cattle. This, of course, spread chemical exposure not only to those would worked at the farms but their families and people uninvolved in the process. This has since (at least in Colombia, perhaps elsewhere as well) been outlawed. Cactus reports that it still occurs in some places "clandestinely" (www.zmag.org).

In Colombia and some places, there are—usually weak and often unenforced—laws regarding pesticide use (Bolivia has none). Unfortunately, this applies only to the "field" and not to the greenhouse which is where the highest level of chemical exposure takes place (and where most production takes place). At present, Colombia has 134 pesticides approved for use. Seven are considered "extremely toxic" by the government and at least twelve are considered possible/probable carcinogens—about 20% are banned, severely restricted, or unregistered in the US or Europe. Some of them are possible endocrine-system disrupters and can "cause sterility or decreased fertility, impaired development, birth defects of the reproductive tract, and metabolic disorders" (www.zmag.org quoting from the Pesticide Action Network's database).

Another telling statistic is that Colombia uses about twice the amount of pesticides per hectare as is used by companies in the Netherlands.

The numbers suggest the suspicions are justified. In Colombia, reports found that women exposed have a reduced ability to become pregnant. Males who had worked with the chemicals over a ten year period suffered a 40% lower sperm count than others who had not. The story is fairly common throughout the industry. There are moderate increases in miscarriages, children born underweight, premature births, and other birth defects. A study by the Colombian National Institute for Health on pregnant flower workers (1990) found in a group of 1,320 children born to workers, 222 (about 17%) had congenital malformations.

Indications of genetic damage were found in workers in Mexico where they still use DDT. Even though it is illegal in Colombia, The National University reported in a 1995 study that 22 out of 25 samples of water taken from the Bogotá savanna containing the substance. Other pesticides were also found in the water, some of which are "acute nervous system toxins" (www.zmag.org, quoting PAN). Despite company claims to the contrary, besides the expected run-off, pesticides and other chemicals are often discharged into local waterways (where exposed equipment is also routinely washed). In Ecuador children under the age of 18 —about one-fifth of the workforce—have been found with signs of neurological damage at a rate of 22&$37; above normal. In Colombia, they have found children working in the application of the chemicals—something supposedly illegal.

The seriousness of greenhouse exposure should be easy to see, as the workers are in hot enclosed spaces where as many as 127 different chemicals may be used. This concentrates exposure. The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends workers stay out of recently fumigated greenhouses for 24 to 48 hours. In Colombia, that time is around one to two hours and sometimes as little as 20 minutes. There and elsewhere workers report being inside tending the plants during spraying. Others have been sprayed in the face and received little or no medical attention. Spraying can take place several times a week.

Worse, (as noted in Part 1) little or no training or information in both the use and safe handling of chemicals is given to the workers. Safety equipment, when provided, is often poorly maintained and also given without training in its proper use. As many as 40% in Colombia have reported they received no equipment and those who did got boots, gloves, and sometimes glasses. Because of the heat, workers (especially those who do not have the information to understand the safety implications) often take off masks or glasses or gloves during the procedure.

When the flowers are budding, but before they bloom, workers cut the flowers and, in refrigerated rooms, pack them in plastic and boxes. They are then sent to the airport for the trip to Miami, Florida. The hardier flowers (like carnations) easily survive the trip, less hardy ones (like roses) require hydrating with a sugar solution before the trip. At Miami, the flowers are briefly inspected before they are passed on and trucked throughout North America. Because flowers are not eaten, the only things checked for are pests before passing them on. Chemical residue from the means those pests were eradicated is ignored—flowers are considered a "low-risk pathway."

The same attitude is taken by Canada˜a place where consumers were just as likely to purchase artificial roses during the early 1990s before import of cheap Latin American flowers exploded. Sales in British Columbia almost doubled between 1993 and 2000 to $266 million (presumably Canadian dollars). In fact, after Germany and the Netherlands, Vancouver residents are the third largest consumers of cut flowers in the world.

Even though there are extraordinary amounts of flowers crossing Canada's borders, concern about pesticide residue is nil. Despite a 1979 study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health that called for safety standards. It was prompted by a case involving ten Florida florists who were thought to have suffered pesticide (organophosphate) from exposure to Colombian flowers. Like the US, no danger is seen and the potential one is ignored. According to Canadian officials, there have never been "any complaints about pesticides on cut flowers producing any unwanted effects" (www.zmag.org). But since flowers are not considered a food, they are not subject to the sort of testing that would support or refute the possible danger from the chemicals.

Symptoms and effects
The numbers and effects of the chemicals, thus far, have been brief. A more thorough litany of symptoms, syndromes, and other health problems will follow (there will be some repetition). In Colombia, about two-thirds of the workers complain of headaches, impaired vision, nausea, conjunctivitis, rashes, and asthma-like problems. In a study of fern/flower workers in Costa Rica, 50% showed at least one symptom of pesticide poisoning, including headache, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, fainting, and skin eruptions.

In Ecuador, 60% of workers reported dizziness, hand trembling, blurred vision, intolerance to light, headaches, and nausea. The ILO report (see Part 1) breaks it down further. Depending on the time of year:

  • Blurred vision: 8 to 58 percent
  • Colic: 11 to 58 percent
  • Fascicles: 22-56 percent
  • Headaches: 22 to 67 percent
  • Tremors: 11 to 25 percent

To put things in more human, personal terms, some stories:

"It started with an allergy. My skin started to blister and break out because of the heat and humidity in the plastic greenhouses and the chemicals that stay in the air. Then my hair started to fall out. I had appetite loss and lost a lot of weight over a short period of time. I have had terrible aches and pains in my legs and one of my arms. A lot of people have been sick in one way or another" Colombian Flower Worker

Before her packing job, this brown-eyed woman tended the flower crop. One day, as she was bending over a gypsophila bed, her right eye started to burn. That night, she lost sight permanently in the eye. In her new job, half blind, working in a room cooled to keep flowers fresh, she explains that she suffers from frequent colds, chronic bronchitis, and asthma attacks.
(www.zmag.org, describing a scene from the 1987 Colombian documentary Love Women and Flowers)

One man in his early 20s had worked only six weeks as a fumigator in a greenhouse before he came down with what he called the "flu." He was given a protective suit and respirator, but was unable to rinse the chemicals off after work because of water shortages at the plantation. The pills the doctor gave him did not help, and his throat kept getting sorer until he began coughing up blood. The owner [of the plantation] was a Russian who "walked around with a translator," the worker says. "If you complained, they fired you." [Ecuador]
(Mother Jones)

The stories are typical and widespread throughout the industry. From Zimbabwe:

"The sprayers come through while we are working," says a man with badly scarred hands. "We can smell those chemicals. We know that it is bad for us. Many suffer from headaches and sore eyes. My hands get pricked, and those chemicals get into my body. But if you complain, you have no job. Complainers get fired."

In areas of Colombia where floriculture is prominent, doctors report as many as five cases of acute pesticide poisoning each day. Complicating things is that few can pay for the treatment they need and are not compensated for lost work. Too long out of work and the job is given to someone else.

And the danger isn't just from the direct exposure during work. The heavy use of pesticides and other chemicals has contaminated many of the waterways, including water that is used for drinking, cooking, and washing. Some people use the discarded plastic parts of old greenhouses in their homes (repairs) or to build shelters or pens for animals. Wood from the greenhouses is sometimes carted away for firewood. Plant waste is sometimes used for compost. Leftover (contaminated) containers are used for storage. And local farmers—who have had no training in the use, storage, mixing, and safety of the chemicals—sometimes use the dangerous pesticides on their own crops.

Nonchemically-related problems
Though it seems almost anticlimactic, following the list of pesticide-related issues, there are other problems faced by the workers. Because of the long hours and the cramped positions (kneeling, stooping, bending over) required of the labor, physical problems are common. Chronic and sometimes severe back and muscle pain are reported. So are joint problems, especially in the legs and knees. Varicose veins are common. Overwork wears down the constitution, making one more vulnerable to things a rested, healthy person's immune system could fight off. Then added stress of the job, fear of being fired, concern over developing health problems—it all works together to take its toll on the worker.

All for inexpensive flowers.

Concluding notes

This is not meant to discourage one from buying cut flowers or to sound out a call to boycott or political action. What one chooses to do with this information—something or nothing—is a personal decision. The purpose is to create an awareness of something that falls through the cracks, hidden away from our day to day lives. The price that is paid for cheap, abundant beauty. It is to help give a voice to those whose stories are not being told. But I am no activist. I am not important or influential. This is what I do. But maybe if everyone did just a little, stories like this would be far fewer in number. Perhaps.

I look at the rose in the vase on the kitchen table. A Valentine's Day gift from my father to my mother—going on 33 years of marriage—and wonder where it came from. How it got from there to the kitchen table. And like so many of us, I try not to think about it.

"The Dark Side of Flowers" available at www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/cox_flowers.cfm
"Deflowering Ecuador" Mother Jones February 2003
"The Political Economy of A Narco-Terror State" Z MagazineOctober 2002
"America: Who stole the dream?" www.backlash.com/content/corp/2000/dbjs0500.html
Testimony of Rick Harrah (Dole) available at finance.senate.gov/080301rhtest.pdf
Dole Food Company Inc. website www.dole.com
"ITC Says Andean Trade Concessions Have Little Effect in U.S." www.uspolicy.be/Issues/WTO/itc.100802.htm
"Employment and working conditions in the Ecuadorian flower industry" (ILO report):
"Deceptive Beauty: A Look at the Global Flower Industry" (only chapter one available online):
"The Colombian flower trade - success at a price" www.pan-uk.org/pestnews/Pn32/pn32p3.htm
"Bittersweet Harvest: Pesticide Exposures In Latin America's Flower Export Trade" www.wri.org/wr-98-99/harvest.htm
"Who Grows Your Valentine's Day Flowers?" (Maquila Network Update newsletter, February 2002): www.maquilasolidarity.org/resources/maquilas/flowersfeb2002.htm
"Flower-Growers Seek Green Label" www.tierramerica.net/2001/0603/iacentos.shtml

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