Uprooting your Valentine’s rose
Celebrate the Day of the Flower Workers and recognize the exploitation behind your bouquet
Questions to ask your florist
• In what country were your flowers produced?
• Are you aware of the working conditions on the plantations there?
• Do the workers on the plantation have the right to organize and bargain collectively for their rights?
• Does the plantation produce its flowers organically? If not, do workers have access to protective equipment?
• Do workers get paid for overtime, especially around peak seasons like Valentine’s Day?
On Feb. 14, millions of freshly cut roses will be purchased in celebration of one of the most romantic and financially lucrative holidays in North America: Valentine’s Day. Although roses are often the gift of choice to show your love on Valentine’s Day, a few organizations from across the world are asking you to show your love with a postcard instead.
The postcard campaign is just one way to celebrate the Day of the Flower Workers, also Feb. 14. The day is devoted to fighting for flower workers’ in the Global South and spreading awareness about the dark roots underneath the bright, fresh blooms shipped to North America each year.
Women’s studies professor Reena Kukreja, who teaches about the injustices women face around the globe, said the conditions under which flower industry employees work are worse than unfair.
“We have to understand that the flower industry is a highly exploitative one that is marked by human rights abuses including arbitrary dismissals and death threats for those workers that attempt either to unionize or bring unfair work practices to light.” Kukreja said the workers deal with sexual harassment, unpaid overtime and unreasonable production demands. The workers are expected to cut 3,000 stems an hour while earning just 58 cents.
The first official Day of the Flower Workers was celebrated on Feb. 14, 2001 when Cactus, a Colombian non-governmental organization, set aside the day to recognize flower workers’ rights. But Kukreja said the industry has exploited workers in the Global South, particularly in Columbia and Ecuador, since the 1960s.
“It started with the carnation industry and then went to roses,” she said, adding that other kinds of flowers are being grown in the Global South to be shipped to our floral shops, as well.
“It was promoted in Colombia because they found the conditions were good. One, that the climate was right and two, that there were a large number of workers,” she said.
Today, Kukreja said more than 60 per cent of our flowers come from Colombia, but the industry is a growing problem in Ecuador and Kenya, as well.
Of the exploited workers, 65 to 80 per cent are women, Kukreja said.
“They are the ones exposed to pesticides on a daily basis and because the industry is feminized, they are the ones paid lowest,” she said. “Some of the chemicals have been banned in Canada years ago. They’re still being used in Colombia.”
In fact, according to Kukreja, nine of 134 chemicals used in the industry were known carcinogens, but the Canadian government argued that because the flowers aren’t ingested they aren’t worried about chemical residues.
“These pesticides get into the soil. They leak into the water. … Water in the area is no longer safe for drinking,” Kukreja said.
According to Kukreja, the pesticides have detrimental effects on employees’ health.
“Most of the women are young who are employed. They suffer from premature birth and children with birth defects, mental retardation, kidney defects and malformed limbs.”
Around 1990, activists in Switzerland and Germany started organizing on Valentine’s Day after seeing a film about these working conditions, Kukreja said.
“They were trying to create awareness. They started going to supermarkets and asking them to buy fair trade flowers.” Kukreja said holidays such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day put extra strain on the workers.
“They work almost 48 hours a day [for these holidays],” she said.
Since Cactus took up the battle for workers’ rights in the flower industry, they have faced much resistance.
“It’s not been an easy struggle for them,” she said. “They’ve had death threats. … But they haven’t given up.” On the Day of the Flower Workers, Cactus joins up with other organizations such as War on Want and Oxfam and tries to promote awareness and involvement.
David Price, Sci ’10, said he was surprised to learn about the working conditions of the flower workers.
“People in our society couldn’t comprehend working those kind of hours,” he said.
Price said if people knew this was happening he thinks it might change the way they buy flowers.
“‘Where do your flowers come from?’ I think that would be worth asking,” he said.
Jenny Lee, ConEd ’08, said she had heard a lot of hard labour goes into the production of flowers but didn’t know the extent of it.
“In our society, it’s the norm to give flowers,” she said. “It’s probably not something most people think about on Valentine’s Day.”
Lee said people know about exploitative labour in other parts of the world, but you usually don’t associate beautiful flowers with that kind of labour. Lee said knowing where they come from might change how she thinks about buying and receiving flowers.
“It’s really nice to receive flowers, but I think on Valentine’s Day there are other acts of love you can show.”
Kukreja said just boycotting the buying of flowers isn’t the solution—she said students should ask their florists and supermarkets where their flowers are coming from. Veriflora and Fair Trade Certified labels indicate the flowers were grown according to fair practices.
“Think twice about the workers before buying,” she said. “You’ll really be forced to see flowers not as a beautiful thing, but as an ugly manifestation of the sweat and toil that women workers undergo on a daily basis.”
“At that moment, the flowers lose their fragrance.”
If you want to participate in celebrating the Day of the Flower Workers, send a postcard to the Colombian Minister of Social Protection at waronwant.org or find out more by playing a game at maketradefair.com/go/flowerpower
Valentine’s day roses
• Valentine’s Day is celebrated by 84 per cent of Canadians.
• Of those Canadians who celebrate Valentine’s Day, 60.9 per cent spent an average of $100.89 per person on a gift for their significant other in 2006.
• The average Canadian male will spend $135.67 on a gift.
• Of Canadian males, 52 per cent will buy flowers and will spend an average of $32.34 on them.
• 156 million fresh-cut flowers are sold for Valentine’s Day in Canada.
• Sierra Eco, a program supporting the sale of flowers from socially responsible farms has 10 florists in Ontario and can be found at sierraeco.com.