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With steady sunshine and cheap labor, Colombian farms yield $1 billion in exports, dominating the United States market. (Ivan Kashinsky)

The Secrets Behind Your Flowers

Chances are the bouquet you're about to buy came from Colombia. What's behind the blooms?

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At the same time, slightly fewer than half of Asocolflores farms participate in Florverde, and government oversight remains weak. “The industry is self-regulated, so it’s up to the owner and up to his ethics what he does,” says Greta Friedemann-Sanchez, a University of Minnesota anthropologist and author of the book Assembling Flowers and Cultivating Homes: Labor and Gender in Colombia. “There are facilities that have enough washrooms, bathrooms, lockers, cafeterias, a subsidized lunch workers can purchase, recycle all organic material, trying to do biological control of pests and fungus, and follow labor laws. And then there are firms that don’t do any of those things.”

Similarly, labor disagreements continue. At the Facatativá headquarters of Untraflores, the flower workers union Aidé Silva helped organize in the early 2000s, she told me that after 19 years in the industry, she lost her job in late 2009 in a corporate reorganization—an action she says her employer, Flores Benilda, took to break the union after workers shut down a farm to protest pay and benefit cuts. Moreover, Silva says Benilda drained an $840,000 employee support fund that workers had been contributing to for 20 years, leaving only about $8,000. Benilda did not respond to requests for comment.

The global economic crisis has had an impact, too. “The dollar has fallen, the peso has been revalued, the competition from other countries has grown, as has the focus on supermarkets,” said Untraflores’ political adviser, Alejandro Torres. “These changes in the global flower markets have generated costs, and those get put on the workers.” Thousands of workers have been laid off, and some flower farms have moved away from hiring employees in favor of contracting labor; Torres and Silva say the arrangement allows the farms to stop paying the employer share of government social security and medical benefits.

By contrast, Catalina Mojica says M.G. Consultores is actually working to retain employees. Mojica’s focus on collecting data about working conditions and her willingness to talk with local officials and reporters, for example, represents a change for the industry; farm owners have tended to be secretive about their business operations and rarely meet with outsiders. “They don’t get together and BS with people,” she says. “Some owners don’t know the local government officials, they don’t know the [labor and environmental groups]. We’re still very awkward. It’s not something people do.”

“What is expensive for us is people moving from the industry—so we have to keep people happy here,” says María Clara Sanín, a sustainability consultant who has worked with flower farms. At Flores de Bojacá, a farm west of Bogotá that employs about 400 people, there’s an elected employee council that can air complaints to management. The farm has a day care center, a nice cafeteria and machines that strip the thorns off roses—a task usually performed by hand, with special gloves, and a major cause of repetitive stress injuries.

Ultimately, many flower workers have improved their lot. Sanín’s firm, Enlaza, recently surveyed hundreds of women at M.G. Consultores and found that most had previously worked on subsistence farms or as maids, jobs that paid lower wages than the flower industry. Women with their own incomes have more autonomy than those dependent on husbands, says Friedemann-Sanchez, the anthropologist. She answered my original question—What was I buying into if I bought a Colombian bouquet?—with one of her own: “If you don’t buy flowers, what’s going to happen to all these women?”

As I tried to sort out these conflicting snapshots of the industry, I kept coming back to what a flower worker named Argenis Bernal had told me about her life. She began laboring on flower farms when she was 15. Because she was a good worker, she said, she was assigned to the harvest, wielding her clippers along pathways between long lines of flower beds, amassing stacks of roses, carnations, gerberas and other blooms.

“You spend all your time hunched over, from the time they sow the seedling to the time the stems are cut,” she said. “That’s the work, all day long.”

After about a decade, she said, she had to stop harvesting. Now she’s 53, and “I’ve got these problems with my spinal column and with repetitive motion.” She still spends eight hours a day at a farm outside Facatativá owned by Flores Condor, fastening new carnation buds onto the stems of mother plants.

“I’ve stuck it out there because I have only a couple of years until I qualify for a pension,” she says. She and her husband, who have four children, are putting one of their sons through a business management program at a regional community college. Their teenage daughter is hoping to study there, too.

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