Flower Power?

9 03 2008

It seems that in this day and age we all use flowers to mark many occasions, ranging from the more traditional ceremonies such as birth and death to the more commercialised days such as St. Valentines Day and Mother’s Day. Yet, by purchasing such an aesthetically-pleasing product from many supermarkets across the United Kingdom can have dire consequences for those in other parts of the world…

War On Want’s report entitled Growing Pains: The human cost of cut flowers in British supermarkets is good at illustrating how we as a Western society are fuelling other fellow human beings to suffer from skin legions, respiratory problems and fainting spells, since the accounts and experiences of over 30 flower workers in countries such as Colombia and Kenya were documented through interviews between January and February 2007 to reveal some very shocking truths.

Yet before we delve into the findings of the report, below is a video clip to visually highlight the issue. To view the video clip, simply press the ‘Play’ button below:

The key points from the video clip, I feel, are as followed:

* Colombia is one of the ideal places to grow flowers, due to it’s climate. It is the second biggest exporter of cut flowers.

* British retailers are among the ‘best’ customers of Colombian cut flowers.

* Many flower workers are conned into thinking that the company they work for has gone into bankruptcy, therefore they do not receive any wages and are expected to work for free. This is apparent with workers for Los Trabajadores de Flores la Sabana, however as they see shipments still coming and going everyday, they realise that it is in fact a lie.

* Many mothers are expected to work long hours most days and in some cases have to leave the children at home alone.

* Repetitive strain injuries are common, however many companies refuse to let their workers see a doctor, which if the worker protests, is sacked.

The SADCTrade Development Programme states that the United Kingdom is the largest importer of cut flowers in the world, along with Germany, and generates a revenue of £2.2 billion each year, but at what price does this come at?

If we look at the composure of a flower, we will come to realise that it’s life-span depends on gaining enough nutrients and water in order to survive, however once a flower is cut then this process stops and the flower starts to decay. In order to slow down this process, pesticides can be used, however these can have serious consequences…

According to the Columbian National Institue of Health, women on flower farms experience higher-than-average rates of miscarriages and premature births, while deformities can also occur too. Workers that are exposed to pesticides can suffer from a range of conditions such as skin legions, allergies, respiratory problems and fainting spells, simply from cutting the flowers for you and me to purchase.

As pesticides can be so lethal to humans, the World Health Organisation stated that 24 hours should be the minimum wait between the time flowers are sprayed and workers re-enter the area, however this rarely occurs; a 2002 study of 8,000 flower workers in Bogotoa found that all of the workers had been exposed to 127(!!) different pesticides, of which 20% are banned in the United States, due to being highly toxic.

Now, with many jobs in the United Kingdom, sick pay and having days off when you are ill are the norm, however this is an entirely different story in Colombia and Kenya. When workers report any accidents that occur or if workers get sick no help is given, since they are immediately sacked. Imagine if your hands were damaged as badly as in the picture below – due to coming into contact with pesticides – and instead of seeking help from your employer you are left to fend for yourself.

A Flower Worker's Hands
(Copyright: The Human Flower Project)

Another reason why incidents at plantations across Colombia are so rarely reported can be explained by the words of a flower worker – “Supervisors scare the workers into not saying anything.”

Having tea and coffee during a work break is commonplace in the United Kingdom – and you know how some people get when they do not have their tea and/or coffee! – however imagine working without the chance to even the basis to these two drinks – clean water.

As flower workers spend much of their time in hot greenhouses, then clean drinking water is ultimately needed. While the farms say that they have treated the water so that it is safe for human consumption, one must consider that this may in fact not be the case, due to one worker stating: “You doubt the water is safe because the administration don’t drink the same water as the workers.”

Job security is also an uncertainty for the flower workers, due to many being placed onto short or seasonal contracts. Being placed onto such a contract means that workers can be dismissed at any time without a valid reason and have little to no access to injury or sickness aid. On African flower farms there is evidence that companies keep workers on temporary contracts that they extend year after year, in order to deny them from benefits such as social security, maternity leave and union membership.

On top of a lack in job security, the payment of wages also seems to be ‘hit and miss.’ Kenyan flower workers often receive as little as £23 a month, which is not enough to cover basic needs such as food, housing, transport, education and medical bills. Many workers are also subjected to not getting paid at all, as illustrated in the videoclip by the workers of the Los Trabajadores de Flores la Sabana plantation.

Being part of a union is essential to all workers no matter where they come from, since unions help to provide workers with the chance to raise any issues of unjust that they feel are present in their workplace. On Colombian flower farms, workers are continuously threatened and harassed by the administration if they attempt to join a union, with one worker noting “They put thousands of obstacles in our way to prevent us from meeting. When they know we have a union meeting scheduled, they’ll make us work overtime.” One Colombian company even pays bribes of 40,000 Colombian pesos (£40) to workers that leave the union that they are with.

So the next time that you are out and about shopping and thinking of purchasing some nice looking flowers, spare a thought of the story behind the flowers. If you are adamant at purchasing a bouquet of flowers, then perhaps try and purchase a FairTrade bunch, since even though flower workers are still subjected to exploitation with this range of flowers, you will be helping them, in terms of allowing them to be paid a higher wage, while the flower farms meet basic environmental and labour standards.

To read the information for yourself, click here. All comments on either the information pack or my own blog post would be much appreciated!

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3 responses

28 03 2008
John

This is very unfortunate. I will say it brought tears to my eyes. I know that these people will not see a better future, but I do have the hope that future generations will.

28 03 2008
Raadhika

This is awful. It’s like people just don’t even care about each other anymore. How did this happen to the world? 😦

29 03 2008
Laurie

Flowers? Is anything safe anymore?

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