Before you go out and buy roses:
Olga Tutillo is secretary general of Rosas del Ecuador, a flower workers union in Ecuador. She has worked at flower plantations for 22 years. She is 38 years old and has five children.In Europe, they're doing something about it:
Tutillo explains how hard the work is for Ecuador's roughly 100,000 flower workers, about 70 percent of whom are women -- the faces behind Cupid. The International Labor Organization estimates about 20 percent of the workforce consists of children.
The workers generally earn the national minimum wage, $145 per month. They work especially long hours in advance of Valentine's Day and other flower-giving holidays in the United States. They experience major occupational risks. Back pain is common among those who must stand or lean all day. Repetitive motion injuries are common. Rose pickers are frequently cut by thorns.
"There are also problems caused by pesticide fumigation," she explains. "Fumigation happens every day, either to prevent the plants from getting different diseases or to deal with it when they do get those diseases. Some of these chemicals are highly toxic."
Flower workers who try to organize to improve their working conditions face severe repression.
"It is extremely difficult to unionize in Ecuador," says Tutillo. "The companies are organized among themselves and they have a list on the Internet of the people who have tried to unionize or have unionized. If someone tries to create a union, the company threatens to fire them and says they won't be able to find another job. These are the famous blacklists."
Thanks to firings, blacklisting and other tactics -- like increasing use of contract workers instead of full-fledged employees -- the unionization rate in Ecuador is depressingly low. Among 300 flower companies in Ecuador, reports Tutillo, "only four have unions -- the other attempts to unionize have been repressed."
In Europe, a flower certification program has taken hold that tells consumers whether flowers were grown on farms or plantations that respect minimal environmental and labor conditions. According to the International Labor Organization, a substantial portion of flowers grown in Kenya, Tanzania and Zimbabwe receive certification under the Flower Label Program. The flower certification program is no panacea, but it does help modestly improve environmental and working conditions, and it gives workers more space to organize.More information on ILRF here.
The program has had much less impact in South America, in considerable part because the Flower Label Program hasn't taken hold in the United States, where most Colombian and Ecuadorian flowers are shipped.