There's a 1 in 12 Chance Your V-Day Flowers Were Cut by Child Laborers

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Most flowers come from Colombia and Ecuador, two countries with records of poor labor rights. But it doesn't have to be that way.

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Workers in Cayambe, Ecuador prepare roses for export just before Valentine's Day / Reuters

More than one in three American adults will buy flowers today, spending $1.7 billion dollars on this Valentine's Day tradition. The majority of those flowers will come from Colombia and Ecuador, two of the world's leading producers. But these countries, and their flowers industries specifically, have troubled records of abusing workers or hiring children, and your well-intentioned roses might go toward supporting some of these practices.

Because the flower industry is driven by human labor, when demand skyrockets around Valentine's Day, Colombian and Ecuadorian growers can't just open a valve to increase production. They have to get more labor out of their existing employees, sometimes having them work up to 20 hours a day, and they have to hire on new workers. Often, that means children.

At least 8.3% of flowers in the U.S. were cut by child laborers in Ecuador, or about one in 12 stems, according to the most recent data. During the school year, 80% of the workers in Ecuador's enormous flower industry are children, according to a 2000 report by the International Labour Organization. That's the most recent data specific to the flower industry, but it may not have changed much; international pressure led Ecuador, in 2005, to launch reforms to reduce child labor, but as of 2010, 13% of the country's children are sill working, often in agriculture.

Far more of our flowers come from Colombia, where, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, "child labor has been successfully eradicated in Colombian flower plantations." Only a decade ago, an alarming State Department report on Colombia found that "children as young as 11 years of age work full time in almost every aspect of the cut flower industry." Though child labor is still a significant problem in coffee and sugarcane, getting children off of Colombia's flower plantations was a real success. What happened?

Believe it or not, a significant share of the credit goes to George W. Bush. In 2006, his administration started working with Colombia on a free trade deal, but he made it about more than just trade. The deal would require that Colombia meet and enforce certain worker's rights standards, including on child labor. Colombia, which for years had resisted pressure to improve worker's conditions, happily agreed. And why not? A free trade would be so great for Colombia's economy that ending child labor, allowing stronger unions, and improving basic services were well worth the trade-off. Congress finally approved the deal last year, and it is expected to go into effect by the end of 2012.

Still, even if the U.S. can push to end child labor on Ecuadorian flower plantations the way it did in Colombia, that won't make the industry much friendlier to its workers. Two-thirds of flower workers in both countries suffer from work-related health problems: mostly things like nausea or impaired vision, but sometimes asthma, birth defects, or even miscarriages. Labor rights organizations cite the industry's use of dangerous pesticides. The U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project says that 20% of the pesticides are so toxic that they're either restricted or outright banned in the U.S. and Europe.

Women in Ecuador, who make up half of the country's flower work force, often face abusive conditions at plantations. Of the women interviewed by the International Labor Rights Forum in 2005, 55% said they'd been subject to sexual harassment at work and 19% that they'd been forced to have sex with a supervisor or coworker. This means that 5.7% of flowers you see for sale today were cut by women who'd been sexually harassed, and 2.0% cut by women who were forced to sleep with someone at work.

The conditions aren't as bad in Colombia, but women are routinely fired if they become pregnant. One NGO says that, every day, their office receives an average of two women who've lost their flower-cutting jobs after being discovered as pregnant.

A reality of our globalized economy is that rich countries buy lots of things from poor countries, and that poor countries tend to treat their workers a lot worse. That's not because poor countries need to abuse their workers in order to compete -- practices like child labor are actually a net loss for the economy. It's because, among many other reasons, they tend to have weaker court systems and frail labor unions, meaning that workers have a harder time fighting abusive employers, and wages are often so low that hungry parents have little choice but to send their children to get jobs. Employers have little incentive to improve.

Fortunately, the U.S. can help. American consumers have more power over flower plantation owners than maybe anybody on Earth. If Americans refuse to buy from a plantation that uses child labor, they can shut it down overnight. The problem, of course, is how to tell the difference. Though more Americans are buying Fair Trade, most are either unaware of the difference, don't think to look for fair trade flowers, or just don't think about it. Rushing by the grocery store to buy some flowers for your spouse in time for dinner, you probably don't have the time or inclination to investigate their source.

When U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement agreement finally goes into effect later this year, it will make Colombian flowers cheaper, and Ecuadorian flowers more expensive by comparison. This means that more flower-cutting jobs will shift to Colombia, where there are still-not-great but improved labor standards as a result of the free trade deal.

In the short run, this is bad news for Ecuadorian flower cutters any way you look at it. They will have fewer jobs and employers could get even cheaper in a desperate effort to drive down their prices. But, in the long-term, as long as the U.S. keeps using its collective buying power to promote workers' rights, Ecuador's industry may come to understand that competing for American dollars requires meeting labor standards. That's not just because U.S. consumers are more aware of the power their money has to either improve or worsen the lives of hard-working families thousands of miles away. It's also because, the more rights-promoting free trade agreements that Congress passes, the more that selling to America will require enforcing good labor standards. Ecuador and the U.S. actually began discussing just one such agreement in 2004, but negotiations collapsed in 2006; once Colombia starts out-competing, Ecuadorian leaders may have to reconsider.

So there are reasons to believe that we're learning how to manage child labor out of the international flower market. But we're not there yet. Consumers are still a little too indifferent, and most of our trade has no Colombia-style labor rights requirements. Americans will still spend over a hundred million dollars on flowers cut by child laborers today, and they won't even know it.


Update, 2:45pm: The headline of this post originally stated the odds of buying a child-cut flower at one in 16. This was partially based on a 2010 statistic that 68% of all American flowers are imported. In fact, more recent statistics show that 90% of all flowers bought in the U.S. are imported. Other statistics in this post have been updated as well. We regret the error.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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