Flower Power

Shanghai Star

Aide Silva has spent 13 years working in the flower planta tions surrounding Colombia's capital Bogota, making sure carnations and roses grow straight and uniform for export.

But five days after she and 26 other workers decided to form a union to confront Benilda Flowers about management changes that lowered their wages, her job description changed.

She said the company moved her from the flower beds to a warehouse where she peeled potatoes for six months. Six other union leaders were fired from the company weeks after they set up Untraflores in May 2001, said Silva, president of the union.

The workers filed a court case in protest and this August two of the workers were reinstated, said Alejandro Garcia, who works with Untraflores. Benilda declined to comment on the case or relations with the union.

Unions have not proved strong in Colombia's flower industry, which exports US$680 million worth of blooms a year - placing Colombia second only to the Netherlands as the world's largest flower exporter.

Untraflores is the only independent union trying to organize Colombia's 90,000 flower workers and it has 27 members. Silva and other leaders say some 70 workers at Benilda and other producers sympathise but do not want to officially register.

Colombia has the lowest union membership rate in Latin America, with only 3 per cent of workers affiliated with organized labour.

In a country with a 16 per cent unemployment rate, workers fear losing their jobs.

Recent changes to labour laws have made organizing more difficult, expanding the use of temporary workers and subcontractors through co-operatives, creating a more flexible work force.

Untraflores members cite problems of unpaid overtime, exposure to harmful pesticides and little or no health care, all for a minimum wage of US$150 a month at Benilda.

However, Asocolflores, the country's largest flower growers' association, says conditions vary in the 500 flower companies operating in the fertile savannah surrounding Bogota. Benilda is not affiliated with the association, which represents 215 flower exporters.

Green flowers

In the mid-1990s, a coalition of German non-governmental organizations led an international campaign to draw attention to difficult working conditions and environmental damage caused by flower cultivation in Colombia.

In response, Asocolflores created "Flor Verde", a voluntary code of conduct that certifies companies who comply with environmental and labour standards.

Thirty-three companies of 147 enrolled in the programme now bear the Flor Verde seal, which is certified by SGS, a French-Swiss company specializing in inspecting industries around the world.

Union representatives say they would prefer strong labour organizations to industry certification as a way to push for improved labour standards, but admit the seal could be a positive step.

"The whole idea of labelling could be a good idea if it is implemented in the right way," said Jana Silverman of the AFL-CIO, the largest US union confederation, which has an "international solidarity" office in Bogota.

"When a product has a brand, you can find out what kind of labour practices a company has - that doesn't happen with flowers since there are no recognizable brands."

To comply with Flor Verde standards, Colibri Flowers, a 17-year-old company in Facatativa, uses 30 per cent organic fertilizers and pesticides while trying to conserve water on its 60 acres (25 hectares).

The company runs a nursery for employees' children since nearly 70 per cent of all flower workers are women, mostly single mothers.

Colibri also entered into a partnership with the government to provide 400 affordable housing units for workers.

For companies that export mainly to Europe, like Colibri, the Flor Verde stamp is good business.

"Europeans are willing to pay more for a flower because they recognize quality," said Reinaldo Garcia, Colibri's general manager.

"In North America," where some 80 per cent of Colombia's flowers go, "the only thing that matters is price."

Colombia's flower exports to Germany "decreased when we had these problems with social and environmental affairs," said Henning Moeller, president of the German flower importer association, BGI.

Asocolflores and the Colombian government agency Proexport recently invited 57 delegates from BGI to Colombia in an effort to improve the industry's image in Germany, the second-largest destination for Colombian flowers in the European market.

"For us, it's not just the price that is important," said Moeller. "It is also the story of what is behind the flower."

(Agencies via Xinhua)