For the past couple of weeks leading up to Valentine's, workers at Milonga Flowers, a medium-sized flower company outside Bogotá, have been waking up at 5 a.m. Workers arrive at the flower plantations at 6 a.m. and go back home at 6 p.m. (if they are lucky), when it is already dark. "Valentine's day is the highest season of the year," said German Lacouture, owner of Milonga. "At that time, we need to hire more workers and increase the production to fulfill the demand".
When you buy a Valentine's rose bouquet online or at the corner deli, there is an 80 percent chance that it comes from Colombia or Ecuador. We tend to be conscious of our organic vegetables and drinking fair trade coffee. Yet, are you asking yourself if the roses you are buying were produced in a sustainable, ecological way and under fair conditions? And most importantly, how can you tell?
One way to find out if your flowers are "ethical" is to see if the bouquet carries the label of certification programs like Fair Trade USA, the Rainforest Alliance or the Florverde Sustainable Flowers brand.
These programs demand that flower farms that carry their logo meet minimum labor requirements such as paying workers for overtime and giving them safe conditions in which to carry out their task.
A worker measures a rose stem at the Milonga Flower farm near Bogota. (Photo: Carolina Garcia)
Flowers without such labels do not necessarily come from farms where workers are exploited. But advocates of certification programs argue that their labels can provide customers some guarantees of fair labor conditions, because auditors for these labels are constantly monitoring farms.
"The big problem in the industry was that women [who cut and trim the flowers] were allowed to go into greenhouses immediately after they were sprayed with pesticides," said Paul Rice, the CEO and President of the Fair Trade USA certification program. "The result was very high levels of cancer, particularly cervical cancer in the industry and also lots of birth defects," Rice said.
According to Rice, farms which want their flowers to be certified by his brand must set aside 10 percent of earnings for a development fund which gives workers the opportunity to implement community projects. One farm in Ecuador recently used this fund to buy washing machines for female employees who were previously spending most of their Sundays washing their families' clothes by a local river.
In Colombia, the local flower industry has come up with a scheme that is similar to the Fair Trade program, called Florverde Sustainable Flowers. This label does not oblige its member companies to set aside funds for community projects. But it does demand companies to restrict the use of pesticides that have been deemed too dangerous for the health of their workers. Farms that want their flowers to carry the Florverde green flower logo must also make sure that no one is working with pesticides for long amounts of time.
"Here, fumigators rotate every four months and they take blood tests before and after [each] rotation," said Hernando Sanabria, a supervisor at Milonga Farms a company which joined the Florverde program three years ago.