It is hard not to appreciate the delicate symmetry of an Ecuadorian rose. Flower-buying Canadians agree; in 2013, 59 percent of Canada’s 130 million imported roses came from Ecuador. Another 39 percent, more than 50 million, came from Colombia. Roses make a classic romantic gift, but when you consider how workers endure low pay, long hours, dangerous conditions, and flaky contracts, the bouquet you hand out—no matter the occasion—could symbolize much more than your affection.

A history of strained labour relations

The South American cut-flower industry began making strides in the 1980s and 1990s, when flower producers shifted operations to take advantage of an optimal combination of climate, cheap labour, and free-trade policies created by the United States government in its war on drugs. Today, Colombian flower exports dominate the American market.

In the 1980s, to solicit foreign investment, the Colombian government deregulated shift lengths, eliminated overtime pay, and cancelled permanent contracts. These factors, when combined with increased work quotas and a highly competitive marketplace, gave plantation owners the legal backing to dismiss workers who couldn’t meet expectations. Companies also fired those who complained to inspectors, suffered from health issues, or tried to organize labour unions. With no fixed contracts, workers were hesitant to take a stand for their freedom to assemble and right to safe, nondiscriminatory working conditions. When workers did organize, companies locked them out, declared bankruptcy, hired scabs, dismissed them, or set up bogus, company-controlled unions. Instead of bargaining collectively, some companies offered slightly more lucrative contracts to workers outside of unions. Other companies used propaganda to exaggerate the connection between unions and radical guerrilla operations. The result of these efforts is an ongoing disconnect between plantation owners, unions, and the 111,000 workers in Colombia’s cut-flower industry.

In Ecuador, where 120,000 workers are directly or indirectly employed by flower plantations, past attempts to organize have also been suppressed, with management blacklisting workers.

In 2005, 35 workers at Flores de la Montaña in the Cayambe region of Ecuador announced that they had formed a union. All 35 were dismissed. Within two weeks they were protesting at the plantation gates. When the Ministry of Labour recognized their union, the company sought out the workers individually and coerced them to accept compensation from the company to end their protests.

When asked about minimal union representation in the Ecuadorian cut-flower industry, plantation owners and company leaders often attribute disinterest on the part of workers. But the suppression tactics employed by plantation owners have likely made workers reluctant to even discuss union membership, citing misinformed concerns over union-induced inefficiencies and corruption. Not surprisingly, only two of Ecuador’s almost 800 flower farms are unionized. For an organization like Fairtrade International, which often works with unions to promote worker empowerment and uphold internationally recognized labour standards, engaging workers in Colombia and Ecuador has been a major challenge.

Instead, Fairtrade International has established committees and held training sessions; this allows workers to exercise their freedom to assemble and find additional means to empowerment. As a result, flower industry workers have discovered confidence and well-being by attending Fairtrade Premium–sponsored training sessions on business skills, health issues, finances, and worker’s rights and obligations. Through involvement in these sessions and committees, workers have become more assertive and more willing to share ideas and concerns with colleagues and supervisors.

Community benefits of fair trade flowers


The popularity of fair trade flowers in Europe has made Kenya the global leader in growing them. In addition to funding training programs and offering microloans, Fairtrade Premiums have helped improve local education opportunities. Premiums from flower farms have financed exams and initiatives to recognize top students; built toilet facilities; and paid for desks, tables, and workspaces. Finlays, a Fairtrade certified grower in Kenya, has helped address the issue of AIDS by promoting awareness and offering condoms to workers. 

In Canada, the selection of fair trade flowers continues to expand. Florists Supply, a floral wholesaler based in Winnipeg, purchases fair trade flowers from Ecuador and Kenya and is active in pursuing new fair trade products from across the world. John Forsyth, who is the VP of cut-flower operations, explains how fair trade sales have grown with support from supermarkets: “It’s hard for one flower shop to change the world the way a chain store can. In BC, fair trade has received very good support from Thrifty’s, Whole Foods, and Choices. We want to get fair trade options into as many retail and mass-market locations as we can in Western Canada and Northwestern Ontario. It’s a positive thing for everyone.”

Consumers who want to choose fair trade flowers can identify certified flowers—and show their love—by the looking for the Fairtrade Mark.

Keeping tabs on pesticide use 

Organophosphate pesticides are a major health concern for greenhouse workers. By inhibiting cholinesterase enzymes, these pesticides alter crucial nerve function in insects and humans alike. Overexposure can produce symptoms similar to those associated with nerve-gas poisoning—tearing eyes, irritated nose and throat, blurred vision, nervousness, muscle weakness, and in extreme cases, respiratory paralysis. For women, exposure to organophosphates has been linked to higher rates of lost pregnancies. Wives of sprayers, exposed to pesticides through their husbands’ work clothes, also report higher miscarriage rates. Studies show that children from communities located near flower farms score lower on fine-motor-skill assessments and other neurobehavioural evaluations. Workers who suffer from symptoms associated with pesticide poisoning—especially those whose production is limited by health issues—also risk dismissal.

Fairtrade standards regulate how certified farms use pesticides. To protect workers, all sprayers must receive proper training and protective equipment, including clean uniforms. Greenhouses are sprayed at set, documented intervals. During spraying, greenhouses are closed to other workers, a quarantine that lasts a minimum of four hours, depending on the pesticide.

Fairtrade standards also require regular medical exams for all employees (yearly for all workers; every three months for sprayers) and appropriate treatment and compensation for workers showing signs of pesticide poisoning.

In addition to Fairtrade standards, workers have benefited from the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) measures. Ponte Tresa in Ecuador, Fairtrade certified since 2004, uses natural predators to control foliage-devouring, pesticide-resistant spider mites.

Redefining gender roles in rural Africa and South America 

Women compose as much as 65 percent of the workforce in Colombia’s cut-flower industry, where many continue to face sexual harassment and hazardous conditions due to unsafe pesticide use and long shifts. Some women have reported ruptured varicose veins, carpal tunnel issues, and kidney problems caused by hours spent standing, trying to meet unreasonable quotas. Long, physically taxing work days make it difficult for women to properly care for their children, and nearly impossible to establish new roles for themselves in society.

Fairtrade certified plantations have helped make positive impacts on gender issues across the cut-flower industry. In Kenya, one certified farm has created a gender committee comprised of both men and women. They’ve adopted special training programs to inform women about workplace discrimination, how to report abuse, and how to plan a family. Reports show that these committees have helped women find greater confidence in the workplace and have taught men about the changing roles of women in their rural society. Also, Fairtrade standards mandate adequate maternity leave and time for nursing. At Rosas del Monte in Ecuador, workers are offered microloans as part of the Fairtrade Premium benefit. Many women have used these loans to improve their homes; pay for school uniforms; or start their own hair, makeup, and nail salons.

Author: Erik Johnson | Erik is the associate editor of Fair Trade Magazine

“Equal Arrangements” was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2015 Edition of Fair Trade Magazine

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