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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 February 2008, 11:53 GMT
Behind Colombia's flower trade
By Henry Mance

Worker at Wayuu Flowers, Colombia
Colombia's flower trade has been losing money as the dollar falls

Colombia, one of the Latin American countries where Valentine's Day is least celebrated, is paradoxically perhaps the country on the continent with most at stake in the event.

For the country's flower industry, it marks the sales peak of a trade which earns $1bn (500m) a year.

For employee rights groups, 14 February is designated as the International Day of Flower Workers, a chance to raise awareness about alleged poor conditions faced by the industry's 99,000 workers.

The industry's voice has recently become louder, thanks to the spread of its Florverde (Green Flower) certification.

"Instead of getting scared by the criticism of the industry in the 1990s, we decided to see it as an opportunity," says Juan Carlos Isaza, the scheme's director.

Florverde guarantees the social and environmental standards of over 300 million stems exported to supermarkets and other buyers for Valentine's Day.

Now a mature programme, it faces two very different challenges: can it incorporate strong trade unions into its standards? And, with a weak dollar hitting profits, can its ethical standards keep their appeal?

Benefits without unions

Since 2003, 25% of Colombian flower farms have received a Florverde certificate, with a further 17% are on track to do so.

That means complying with 165 criteria, including commitments to seal off areas recently sprayed by pesticides and to impose a maximum working week of 48 hours with no more than 12 hours overtime.

Rafael Umana of Wayuu Flowers
Mr Umana says there is freedom to form unions at Wayuu Flowers

Cactus, an advocacy organisation, recognises some environmental improvements, but maintains that workers' key right to association is still not respected on certified farms.

"Firms share a blacklist of union members' names," said its director, Aura Rodriguez. "Without independent trade unions, who can negotiate benefits?"

The answer may lie in the involvement of European supermarkets.

"Before 2004, they were afraid because of the security situation. They wouldn't pay the insurance for their buyers to come here," says Mr Isaza.

"Now they come directly and they want to see standards fulfilled."

As a result, Florverde has sought to comply with the UK's Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which sent a delegation including trade union representatives to Colombia last April.

'Law of silence'

Florverde standards were subsequently updated to include the right to unionisation.

Nonetheless, leading Florverde firms prefer to focus on other ways of negotiating with their workers.

I'm one of those who'd like to be in a union, but when it's talked about people drop out at the last minute, saying that they'll get sacked
Colombian flower worker

"There's total freedom to form unions here," says Rafael Umana, manager of Wayuu Flowers, which was recently chosen as the fifth best place to work in Colombia by the Great Places to Work Institute.

"But none has been created because - as our employee surveys show - the people here are happy."

According to a senior official at another exporter, "staff-manager relations have always been very close: if they have a problem, they can tell us directly."

Some workers at other Florverde firms paint a more subtle picture.

"The conditions here are very good," says one man.

"I'm one of those who'd like to be in a union, but when it's talked about people drop out at the last minute, saying that they'll get sacked."

A former flower worker says her husband was recently threatened with three months' docked pay by a farm for allegedly considering starting a union.

Flowers grown under covers on the Bogota savannah
European buyers are visiting Colombia to check standards

"Instead he quit. There are lots of workers with complaints, but the law of silence reigns."

Political developments may change this scenario.

The proposed Free Trade Agreement between Colombia and the US, which would make permanent the tariff exemptions currently enjoyed by the flower industry, has met resistance from Democrats in the US Congress due to concerns about lack of union rights in Colombia.

Hence Colombian industries - flowers included - may take further steps towards strengthening unions to ease the agreement's approval.

Dollar squeeze

While critics and buyers push for higher standards, Florverde is being pulled in a different direction by the US dollar, which has fallen by about a third against the Colombian peso since 2003.

As all flower exports are processed in dollars, the fall has cost Colombian growers an estimated $372m (190m) over the past four years.

The situation pressures producers to economise.

Wayuu Flowers estimates that its social and environmental programmes for its 135 employees, including subsidised housing, account for around 10% of its costs.

Workers at Wayuu Flowers, Colombia
The industry employs some 99,000 people

"We're growing, while some other businesses are closing down," according to a senior manager. "But while the dollar and the flower price stay low, it's very tough."

One possible way out is Fairtrade certification, which would enable the farm owners and workers to receive higher prices for their products.

Uncertified growers may now be unable to pay for the improvements necessary for certification.

"Making the investment now is difficult," says Mr Isaza. "We may see a drop in growers certifying by the end of this year."

Nonetheless he maintains hope that the reverse may happen, with farms accelerating towards more ethical production to get access to new markets.

"It's not about earning a higher price - it's that, without Florverde, you simply don't get the deal," he says.

Florverde's success has already inspired similar projects for Ecuadorian flowers and Colombian bananas.

The flower industry's response to current dilemmas may show those sectors how sustainable and flexible such voluntary schemes can be.

Cultivating an ethical flower trade
10 Mar 04 |  Science/Nature
Country profile: Colombia
12 Jan 08 |  Country profiles

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