-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
-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
-A very weak sector, in terms of labor
-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
-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
-You can always find work in the
industry, but rights are harder to come
-That's right. The two things don't go
hand in hand.
-Tell us a little bit about the process
of flower production?
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
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
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
-Is concentration as much a feature of
the flower growing industry as it is in
-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
where 80 percent of production is
The sector has an annual turnover of 1
billion US dollars, 70 percent of which
is picked up by multinational
This phenomenon is accompanied by a
deterioration of working and living
conditions for the vast majority of
-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
-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
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
-When that happens workers go from being
victims of their employers to being
victims of the health care system.
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
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
-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
-No, it's not enough to live on. A
family of four needs at least three
minimum wages to live in Colombia.