Valentine’s Day is the biggest day of the year for the commercial flower industry. Most people grab a bouquet from their local supermarket and don’t think twice about it. But do you know what it took for those flowers to get to you?
The US imports nearly 80% of it’s flowers, and the majority come from Colombia and Ecuador where the labor rights of flower workers are consistently violated. Flower workers, a majority of whom are women, are forced to work overtime without additional pay, are exposed to toxic chemicals that cause long-term health conditions, are denied the right to collective bargaining, are paid poverty wages, and often face sexual harassment and violence in the work place. Many flower farms also pour toxic chemicals and waste into nearby rivers and lakes putting the surrounding communities (often the very places the workers live) in serious danger.
Most people don’t realize that the beautiful bouquet they purchase at their grocery has such a high human cost.
Here are 10 facts about the commercial flower industry:
- Colombia and Ecuador are the largest exporters of flowers to the US.
- During peak seasons, like the months leading up to Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, employees reported that work weeks can exceed 100 hours.
- 60% of Colombian and Ecuadorian flower workers are women.
- Children and young adults have even been found to make up as much as 20% of the flower industry workforce in places like Ecuador.
- Most workers only make around $8 a day (that’s less than the cost of a flower bouquet).
- 55% of Ecuadorian flower workers have been the victims of some form of sexual harassment.
- Nearly two-thirds of Colombian flower workers suffer from health issues due to the heavy use of pesticides and fungicides.
- Women flower workers are often forced to produce a negative pregnancy test as a condition of hire, and those who are found to be pregnant after starting work are frequently fired.
- Workers face retribution for unionizing and some companies were found to have clauses in their contracts prohibiting employees from joining unions.
- Undocumented women from neighboring countries (such as Venezuela) are often hired and paid significantly less than minimum wage.
“Today, a flower is not produced with sweetness but with tears. Our product is used to express beautiful feelings throughout the world, but we are treated very poorly.”– A flower sector employee in Colombia interviewed by PASO and Global Exchange
Since the 90s, workers rights groups have used Valentine’s Day as a day of awareness and solidarity for flower workers known as International Flower Workers’ Day. This is an opportunity to raise awareness about the unjust practices within the flower industry and the need to hold corporations accountable for the health and safety of their workers. This is also an opportunity for us as consumers to buy with our conscience. Ask your local grocery store where their flowers come from. You can even organize a petition in your community to advocate for the rights of the workers who produce the flowers that are sold in your neighborhood.
This Valentine’s Day let’s use our voices and our wallets to promote the rights of flower workers.
Elizabeth Endara is the co-founder of Release the Women and the Advocacy Writer and Editor at Oxfam America. She lives in Chicago.