Where Flowers Bloom So Does Hope: Colombia’s Troubled Flower Industry

We’re in the modest headquarters of Untraflores, the Colombian union that flower workers pieced together ten years ago despite enormous odds. With only 400 mostly female members spread thinly on farms west of Bogota, the organization struggles every day to survive.

Night is falling rapidly, and even though Bogotá, Colombia’s largest city, is no place to travel across in the dark when you’re a newly-arrived foreigner, I linger. The urgency in the voices around me – mostly young single mothers – is palpable. Their words jostle each other as they spill out one more story about their difficult lives as flower workers. Even though families beckon and our time together eats into precious time off before yet another U.S. holiday pushes many of them into forced overtime, the stories they have to tell hold them there.

We’re in the modest headquarters of Untraflores, the union that flower workers pieced together ten years ago despite enormous odds. With only 400 mostly female members spread thinly on farms west of Bogota, the organization struggles every day to survive.  As union affiliation in Colombia is individual, in many companies, only 10% of the eligible workers are signed up. This problem is compounded by the fact that as many as half are temporary, sent home before any benefits must be paid.

It’s particularly hard for women. Untraflores union head Aide Silva explains, “Men make more money than we do. And, we women, especially younger ones, have to be careful not to get caught alone in the greenhouses because of the widespread sexual abuse. Discrimination against women is fierce and workers don’t know their rights,””

Most women are migrants – many fleeing endemic violence in Colombia’s countryside. They prefer cut-flower work over their main alternative:  poorly paid domestic jobs.  “You can’t imagine how hard it is on us,” says Betty Fuentes, a former Untraflores local President who works as an organizer with the Colombian labor federation, CUT, funded by the Belgian trade union ABBV, “At about 4 in the morning, all around here you see single mothers hurrying their children to daycare. Bigger children have to fend for themselves to get off to school, and during high season, they are often left home alone for hours because their mothers are forced to work overtime.”

Flowers have only recently dominated this fertile, soggy plain on Bogotá’s outskirts. Small family flower production began tentatively in the 1960s but exploded three-fold when cheap labor made imported flowers less expensive in the U.S. than those produced locally in greenhouses. Flower farms in the U.S. closed by the dozens.

‘To save Colombia from cocaine, buy its roses’, Colombian president Cesar Gaviria urged repeatedly in the early 1990’s, when the U.S. promoted flower exports as an alternative to drug production. Colombia grew to the world’s second largest exporter after the Netherlands, generating an income for around 800,000 of its approximately 45 million people.  If you buy flowers in a US supermarket, they almost certainly come from Colombia.

Although flower workers earn more than most others in agriculture, they still generally only earn Colombia’s minimum wage. This approximately $12 a day covers less than 45 percent of estimated basic living expenses and contrasts dramatically with the estimated retail value of the flowers that just one woman picks daily – US$600–800.

Retired agronomist Alberto Caro once owned a share in a flower farm. “I sold because I could see that as international competition grew we would be forced to squeeze our workers harder and harder.”

His concerns about speedup are reiterated by single mother, Esperanza Cerero. “Just a few years ago, each of us was responsible for twelve beds of flowers, now it’s almost doubled. It means there are more and more injuries. Some friends are so disabled they can’t even feed themselves because they can’t lift a spoon. But women work anyway – there have no choice.”

Lawyer Omaira Paez works for the women-led, non-profit advocacy organization Cactus corporation. In 2009 she processed the grievances of 105 mostly women workers: firings without cause, denial of legally-mandated benefits, and work-related injuries.  “After they have worked in the industry for 10 or 15 years, that’s when the health problems begin,” she explains.

But it’s not limited to injuries. By the time brilliantly-colored flowers reach a northern buyer, they will have been sprayed, rinsed and dipped in a cocktail of potentially lethal chemicals. A full 20% of these are banned for use in the U.S. Even though pesticide use has been slashed almost 40% since 1998, over a third of those remaining are listed as “highly” toxic by the World Health Organization. Pesticide regulation is non-existent inside greenhouses, where toxicity levels tend to concentrate. “We all worry about our health and our children’s health,” says Esperanza Cerero.

But it’s certainly no bed of roses for Colombia’s flower industry owners either. Globally, the cut flower industry functions on very slim profit margins because of demanding consumer quality standards and flowers’ inherent fragility. In a classic race to the bottom, ruthless competition stems from countries with even lower wages such as Kenya and increasingly, China.  Fluctuating fuel prices and exchange rates between the Colombian peso and the US dollar complicate cost calculations, leaving more and more farms struggling to compete.

The huge amounts of water flowers absorb are steadily draining the aquifer beneath the plain east of Bogotá. But perhaps the flower industry’s most detrimental impact has been on Colombia’s food security. Agronomist Caro explains, “Bogotá has 5 million people, and the land around is ideal for small scale farming. Instead we have an export-oriented flower industry that does provide jobs and income, but at a huge cost in water and in feeding ourselves.”

Despite the odds, a small minority of flower women have done well. After working 20 years, single mother Gloria Ines Moreno lives in a comfortable townhouse with her university-trained son and his wife. “I owe flowers everything” she says, “Because I am paid decently, and treated with respect, I live well. But many workers are not so lucky.”

The flower industry business organization, Asocolflores, laud stories such as Gloria’s. In elegant offices in Bogota’s wealthiest neighborhood, I met Richard Griffiths, once a consultant on ethical sourcing for WalMart. He waxes enthusiastic about Colombian flowers, “This a world model for corporate social responsibility, and the US is working to promote it elsewhere. I believe that the more Colombian flowers you buy, the more problems you can solve.”

Asocolflores admits that their recent focus on corporate social responsibility responds to pressure exerted by northern consumers and NGOs. The industry organizations now runs US funded social development programs that aim to reduce family violence, train displaced workers, and provide day care. Cactus Corporation estimates that these efforts impact 10% of workers.

Over half of Asocolflores 200 members have joined Florverde (green flower), which monitors labor practices, pesticide application, water use and waste disposal. But to date, no Florverde farms have independent unions; none are prohibited from demanding forced overtime; and all can require women to submit to pregnancy tests.

But despite the wildly differing perspectives of what flowers do for the country, its women and its environment, no one – not the unions, not the NGOs, and certainly not the producers – is calling for a boycott. Rather the unions and non-profits urge northern consumers to write protest letters and pressure their local supermarkets to check the conditions where their flowers are produced.

Colombia’s flower women are well aware of the irony wrapped up in the often breathtaking flowers they ship northward. “We just want the women who enjoy our flowers to realize the price we women pay to produce them,” says Betty Fuentes. “And to support our efforts for better wages and working conditions.”

For more information on how to support Colombia’s flower workers and trade union rights, contact

Linda Farthing is a writer and film field producer who work on Latin America. She is most recently author with Ben Kohl of “Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance” and with Ben Kohl and Felix Murichi of the forthcoming “From the Mines to the Streets: a Bolivian activist life” (Texas 2011).