trade unions

Enviar este artículo por Correo Electrónico




Colombia's flower industry is famous worldwide for
its breathtakingly beautiful products. Sadly, that beauty
comes at the high cost of exploiting and abusing dozens
of thousands of workers. SIREL spoke with Alejandro Torres,
advisor to the National Flower Workers Union (UNTRAFLORES)
and prominent researcher of Colombia's flower industry,
a sector with more thorns than roses. 




-How many years have you been involved with the flower industry?

-Since early 2001.


-How would you describe it?

-It's an industry that has certain characteristic areas that define it: it's one of Colombia's leading exporters of agroindustrial products, and it also concentrates a very significant number of workers.


-How many people in total are we talking about?

-More than 100,000 direct workers, and some 200,000 indirect workers.


-How many people per hectare?

-In average, about 14 to 16 workers per hectare. Floriculture is perhaps the agroindustrial sector with the highest number of workers per unit of land. But it's also the industry where the most ruthless exploitation occurs. It's a sector linked to major multinational corporations…


-A very weak sector, in terms of labor organization…

-That's right. Every time a trade union is formed a number of mechanisms are set in motion to dismantle the organization. But, at the same time, it's a sector in which there's room for labor growth. And that's what we're working on now.


-Is it difficult?

-It's extremely difficult! The problem is that there's a huge antiunion culture, which in many cases has even caught on among workers. Moreover, 65 percent of the workers are women, and of these the majority are heads of household, who only have their job in the flower industry as a source of income to support their families…


-But people are taking chances and organizing despite the difficulties. That should gives us an idea of how appalling the sector's working conditions are.

-They work in terrible conditions, with excessively long working hours, and exposed to a host of highly toxic agrochemicals. A widespread practice among employers is their failure to make payments to workers, in particular where social benefits are concerned. Also common is the systematic violation of labor laws governing payment of overtime, holiday and Sunday work, and other regulations.


-You can always find work in the industry, but rights are harder to come by.

-That's right. The two things don't go hand in hand.


-Tell us a little bit about the process of flower production?

-Colombia produces roses, carnations and alstroemeria. These flowers make up the bulk of production.


The seeds (mostly Dutch) are first planted in a greenhouse, and later transplanted. After that, the process depends on the variety of flower. Carnations take about a year, roses up to four years. And as they grow, they require a number of tasks, such as, netting the flowers, tying them, and covering them.


In addition to planting and growing activities, there is also flower selection and classification, which are very harsh tasks because they're done in extreme conditions, in a very cold and humid environment, where the ground is constantly being watered to keep the temperature low.


We know that during high seasons, right before Saint Valentine's Day, for example, some businesses make workers put in 24 hours straight.


An industry concentrated in a handful of companies


-Is concentration as much a feature of the flower growing industry as it is in other sectors?

-The sector has undergone a profound change over the past few years. A significant number of companies, in particular small and medium sized ones, have been forced to shut down, and the only ones that seem to be pulling through are those linked to conglomerates, which are mostly foreign-owned and operate in almost all stages of the industry, from flower growing to distribution, in particular in the United States, where 80 percent of production is exported.


The sector has an annual turnover of 1 billion US dollars, 70 percent of which is picked up by multinational corporations.


This phenomenon is accompanied by a deterioration of working and living conditions for the vast majority of workers.


-What has brought this change on?

-Business owners are making workers absorb any aspects of the business that affect their earnings, for example the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, and the rise in input costs. For this reason, layoffs have become more frequent and workers are increasingly being forced to take on more and more tasks. And as I said before, this situation is aggravated by outsourcing practices, the elimination of all benefits, and the application of harsh methods, such as the hour bank system or flexible work hour schemes.


-Does that intensification of work translate into a greater deterioration in terms of the workers' health?

-It certainly has. That explains why a growing number of workers is being rendered unfit for work at increasingly younger ages, debilitated by painful illnesses, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendonitis, rotator cuff syndrome, epicondylitis, and De Quervain's disease, as well as other conditions, including back and leg problems and respiratory conditions.


-Are there a lot of repetitive tasks?

-Yes, especially in flower cutting activities. The product exported is freshly cut flowers, and to cut the flowers workers used shears that are similar to those used to cut poultry. Workers often spend their whole shift cutting flowers; eight to ten hours a day just cutting and cutting. They used to rotate and perform different tasks. But that's no longer the case. Which is why health problems have become so severe.


It's a fact that workers with greater seniority suffer fewer health problems than workers with less time on the job. That means that work used to be less harsh, that it didn't involve as many repetitive actions, and that it wasn't as intense as it is today.


-We're talking about conditions that are, in many cases, irreversible.

-Yes, that's what makes these conditions more painful. There's no cure for carpal tunnel syndrome, or for other conditions caused by repetitive strain.


-What happens when someone starts suffering pain? Do they have any health insurance? Can they access some form of treatment?

-When that happens workers go from being victims of their employers to being victims of the health care system. Because Colombia has a tortuous health care system. The health care provider has a labor division, where workers first take their case to. There it can take months before a case is even considered. Once considered, the health care provider usually tries to pass it off as a common illness, caused by some home-related activity.


On the rare occasions the health care provider believes the cause of the ailment is work-related, it refers it to another body, an occupational risk manager, which usually concludes that it's not an occupational illness, and then there's a proceeding before a regional illness assessment board that, even when it determines that an illness is caused by something related to the patient's work, it stipulates that the worker has only lost a minimum of his or her working capacity.


So, there are workers who can't use their hands, who can't hold a cup of coffee or button their shirts, but are told that their working capacity has been impaired in only 5 percent. But the fact is that these workers can't live off their hands. In reality they've become 100 percent unfit for work. The only thing these health care providers do in certain cases is restrict the tasks these workers can perform, but even then, employers fail to comply with such restrictions.


-How much does a worker make in average?

-Usually, the legal minimum, some 250 US dollars a month in average.


-Can you live with that salary in Colombia?

-No, it's not enough to live on. A family of four needs at least three minimum wages to live in Colombia. 


From Buenos Aires, Gerardo Iglesias


July 27, 2010





Illustration: Allan McDonald, Rel-UITA

Photo: Gerardo Iglesias


Volver a Portada


  UITA - Secretaría Regional Latinoamericana - Montevideo - Uruguay

Wilson Ferreira Aldunate 1229 / 201 - Tel. (598 2) 900 7473 -  902 1048 -  Fax 903 0905