Colombian Free Trade Agreement Makes No Promises to Flower Workers

By this winter a Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia could be signed. This spring, the administration of President Uribe met protests against the agreement with violence leading to deaths and disappearances. Uribe also claimed that the protests were organized by the FARC, a guerilla army, not by citizens. The agreement will not change tariff exemptions granted to the thriving flower industry, but 100,000 workers don’t expect to see any benefits. According to the privately organized Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (ASOCOLFLORES), Colombia is now second only to the Netherlands in the worldwide exportation of fresh cut flowers. 60% of cut flowers sold in the United States come from Colombia.

The flower business started more than 40 years ago and was comprised of sustainable family enterprises. Businesses were bought out, and in 1998, after exports had reached 475 million dollars, the U.S.-based multinational food giant Dole bought Splendor Flowers, one of the largest companies in Latin America with 2,500 workers. 65% of workers are women and, though ASOCOFLORES brags that it is giving them jobs, "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," commented lawyer Diana Alexandra Castañeda from the non-governmental Corporación Cactus which provides legal advice and support to workers.

After the buyout by Dole, hiring systems began to change, and the number of stems cut and bouquets packed required for each worker rose. In addition, workers were and are still suffering from carpel tunnel syndrome from repetitive jobs, over exposure to pesticides and fertilizers, and descrimatory firing for women during pregnancy or before eligibility for maternity leave. In response, organizations such as the Sintrasplendor Union were created, one of six unions organized by flower industry workers in the last decade. At first, Dole refused to negotiate with the unions, but gave in in 2004. Still, workers continue to be paid minimum wage and experience health problems due to hazardous working conditions.