If you buy flowers for Mother’s Day this year, think for a moment about Amanda Camacho. Camacho, a diminutive single mother with long black hair, works on a carnation plantation on the outskirts of Bogota, Colombia, the country that provides the United States with 60 percent of its cut fresh flowers.
After leaving her small rural birthplace at age 11, Camacho worked as a nanny in Bogota before getting her first flower plantation job at age 17. “That was all that was available in the savanna of Bogota,” she says, “especially for women with no education and no real resources.”
Camacho, now 34, plants, tends, harvests and packs carnations, working 8‑hour days – up to 10 hours during peak periods – in plastic greenhouses that get very hot and often reek of the pesticides used to produce unblemished flowers.
According to a new report from the US Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP), the group sponsoring Camacho’s current tour of the United States, about one-fifth of the pesticides used to produce exported flowers are so toxic they are illegal in the United States and Europe.
About two-thirds of the more than 200,000 workers directly or indirectly employed in Colombia’s flower industry are women. Eighty-five percent of them are subjected to illegal pregnancy screening tests so that companies can avoid paying legally required maternity leave, according to a 2003 study by the Colombian flower worker advocacy organization CACTUS.
Like Camacho, they typically earn the country’s minimum wage, which is now $215 per month – less than what the government considers necessary for a family’s subsistence. Camacho’s employer deducts $45 for social security and benefits (like breakfast) and her monthly housing cost is nearly $100. That leaves the mother of two with about $75 to take care of her family’s needs.
“The work is very difficult,” Camacho says. “Some day we don’t make the quota, and they yell at us, and in some cases give us warnings.”
But Camacho and other workers at her company, Papagayo, decided to try to improve conditions – a formidable challenge in Colombia, which has the world’s highest rate of trade unionist killings. “It began because we were just being overworked,” she explains, adding:
We decided to organize. There was a lot of verbal disrespect from the supervisors, and they were laying off lots of workers with high seniority. So on February 14, 2008 – International Flower Worker Day – we sought help from Untraflores [a flower worker union established in 2001]. We had a meeting with the 25 workers needed to form a union, and we sent forms to the Ministry of Social Protection (MSP). Right afterward, the company began reprisals against the workers who formed the union, and four of the leaders were fired.
Supervisors talked to workers, pressuring them and even offering payments to any member who resigned from the union, called Sintrapapagayo. The MSP ultimately decided in the spring of 2008 that the union did not have enough members and had failed to follow the rules precisely.
But despite widespread fear, workers – who had heard reports the company had bribed MSP officials to disqualify the union – promptly formed a new union, named Asopapagayo. Nearly every day, workers protested at MSP offices, denouncing officials as corrupt.
Camacho emerged as a leader and was eventually elected president of Asopapagayo last May. Was she afraid? “Yes, of course,” she says with a smile. “But I wanted to fight for my basic rights and for my co-workers so the company will stop overworking us and respect our worker rights.”
By June they had won legal recognition, becoming one of seven units of Untraflores, an umbrella organization for cut flower industry unions. But Camacho’s union has only about 25 members out of Papagayo’s roughly 500 workers, which include at least 100 temporary contract employees who cannot unionize and have even fewer legal protections than direct employees. (Untraflores has a total of 450 members – a tiny share of the industry’s total workforce.)
When the new union began bargaining, it was relatively weak and mainly fought to restore benefits the company took away when workers organized. “We didn’t gain much, but were able to gain recognition of our union, which will continue fighting for us,” Camacho says. “That’s a big win.”
Supporters of Colombian flower workers rights like US/LEAP argue against boycotting Colombian flowers. But they point to serious problems with many certification systems designed to allay American consumers’ concerns about working conditions. The Floraverde “fair trade” certificate, for example, is issued by the industry group Association of Colombian Flower Exporters.
Workers like Amanda Camacho ultimately hope that U.S. support for their cause will give them more power. Washington, they say, could make enforcing protections of workers rights and prosecuting crimes against trade unionists a precondition for any new trade agreement with Colombia. President Obama had opposed his George W. Bush’s proposed free trade agreement with Colombia, but after April’s Summit of the Americas U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said that the administration would push for approval of new pacts with both Colombia and Panama.
“I want people in the United States to support this organizing campaign,” Camacho says, “and know that behind all these beautiful flowers there is suffering because of all the humiliation we face.”
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.