This article originally appeared on VICE.
Lorena never wanted to work in the cut-flower industry. But when she gave birth to the first of two daughters at the age of 19, she understood she needed the money. In the region of Colombia where Lorena has spent her entire life — known as the Bogotá Savanna — cut flowers are king. “There’s no other work, no other industry here,” she told me when I visited her this spring. As a single mother, Lorena had few alternatives but to enter the vast farms and factories, where she cut, trimmed, and arranged carnations, alstroemerias, and roses for export to flower-hungry US consumers.
Almost 20 years later, Lorena’s two daughters have managed to avoid working with flowers — one is a student, and the other does missionary work — but Lorena still works in the same plantations, pulling a minimum-wage salary of $333 per month. Years of difficult and dangerous work have wracked Lorena’s body, leaving debilitating injuries in their wake. Lorena traded her youth and health to support her family. “I don’t want the same for my daughters,” she told me.
The National Retail Federation estimates that this Mother’s Day weekend, Americans will purchase more than $2 billion worth of flowers. Almost 80 percent of those flowers come from Colombia, where impoverished mothers like Lorena toil long hours to produce tokens of affection for more fortunate mothers elsewhere. While the provenance of the peonies we buy last minute at gas stations, supermarkets, and corner store bodegas remains a mystery for most Americans, for the women that produce these bouquets the cut-flower industry is a harrowing reality, and Mother’s Day is a cruel joke.
Work in the cut-flower industry is notoriously dangerous. Flowers are fickle and sensitive to pests and disease. To protect their investments, companies pump highly toxic pesticides and fungicides into the greenhouses where flowers are grown. Twenty percent of these chemicals are so toxic and carcinogenic that they’re prohibited in North America and Europe. As a result, workers often suffer from rashes, headaches, impaired vision, and skin discoloration. Women, who make up 70 percent of the cut flower workforce in Colombia, report substantially higher instances of birth defects and miscarriages.
In the high season between Valentine’s Day and the summer wedding season, work conditions deteriorate as companies cut corners and rush to get their flowers to market. During these months, women oftentimes wake at three of four in the morning in order to finish chores and prepare meals for their families. By dawn, they are already at the plantation, where a workday can last from 16 to 20 hours. After a few hours of rest, the marathon starts over again.
In early March, I traveled to Facatativá, Colombia, to meet Lorena and others workers responsible for our Mother’s Day bouquets. Located an hour and a half outside Bogotá, Facatativá is a sprawling, dusty city that sits in the heart of the Savanna. Thousands of acres of flower farms, blanketed under gray plastic tarps, stretch from the city’s borders like spider webs.
When I met Lorena in front of her home, she was visibly nervous. If her employer found out that she’d spoken out against the industry, she said, there could be serious consequences. Just over five feet tall, Lorena has the petite build of a young girl. But her body, she laments, has been broken by countless hours of huddling over flower beds, trimming stem after stem. Years of cutting, bunching, and arranging bouquets in massive factories. She rattles off a list of injuries: tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, a spinal column disability, a torn rotator cuff. Though the company provides minimal health care, Lorena has to fight to see a doctor. “Every time I go they say there are people with more serious problems, and they push me to the back of the line.”
Does the company where she works offer any precautions to protect her and her colleagues from the dangerous pesticides sprayed on the flowers? “Yes, they give us masks and gloves,” she told me as we sat in the living room of her cinder-block home. “But you can still feel it on you when you come home. Whenever anyone falls sick, the company investigates it thoroughly, attempting to shift the responsibility from the company to the workers.” Lorena recounted the story of a co-worker who’d recently collapsed in the middle of his shift, his face turning purple. “The company says that it was just a heart attack. But there’s a rumor that he’d succumbed to the chemical sprays.”
Given the arduous conditions I asked why she continued to work in the industry. Lorena nodded toward her daughter, flitting between other parts of the house. “The most important thing,” she said, “is to have a home for my family.”
A week later, I attended a meeting to discuss the role of women and labor rights within the industry. “What we’re looking for is to form and organize the flower workers' sector,” Beatriz Fuentes, one of the event’s organizers, told me afterward. Fuentes worked for years in the cut-rose plantations before becoming a union leader.
“Women are chosen to work in the flower industry because they have agile hands — they can go through the motions smoother and more efficiently,” Fuentes explained. “Their hands aren't as heavy, and so they can manage the flowers and arrange the bouquets faster.”
But in exchange, they’re often taken advantage of. “Women are regularly paid less than men for the same jobs,” Fuentes said. Because of limited alternative employment — Colombia regularly has the highest unemployment rate in Latin America — female workers are hesitant to assert their rights. Companies commonly require female employees to take pregnancy tests in order to weed out workers who might be eligible for maternity leave. A 2008 International Labor Rights Forum report suggested that more than half of all women in the industry have suffered from sexual harassment.
As the meeting wound down, I struck up a conversation with Alejandra and her husband, Carlos. Between the two of them, they’ve spent almost 50 years on the plantations. Like Lorena, both Carlos and Alejandra have torn rotator cuffs—Carlos in both arms. Because of her injury, Alejandra can no longer work. Carlos, only 53, walks with a cane. He can only work sitting down.
The next day, I came to their home for a cup of coffee. The couple have two daughters — Camila, who’s just a child, and Mariana, who’s of high school age. Mariana wants to escape the industry and go to college in Bogotá, but the family can’t afford the $5 it costs for her to travel to the capital and back each day. Now she’s picking up spare shifts on the plantation.
Carlos and Alejandra are involved in an effort to unionize flower workers for better conditions. It’s an uphill battle, they say. Increasingly, companies are veering away from permanent employees in favor of temporary, three-month contracts brokered by employment agencies. Known as tercerización (or third-party hiring), the practice is illegal but rampant.
“With an indefinite contract, you have much more security — I can plan on taking care of my family,” Carlos said. Unlike the younger generation of hires, he still has a permanent contract. “If my job wants to get rid of me, they need to do it for a just cause, like showing up to work drunk. But with these temporary contracts, they can work you to the bone and toss you aside.”
Carlos called his 25-year-old neighbor, Sofía, to come over and testify to life as a temporary contractor. “In the farm where I work,” Sofía said, “no one works for the company — everyone works on contract. The companies keep track of whether we’re good or bad workers. If you’re bad, they won’t hire you. And if you’re part of a union, they won’t hire you either.”
Without stronger labor rights and greater visibility, Carlos and Alejandra believe the conditions in the cut-flower industry are unlikely to improve. Meanwhile, the backbreaking work and long hours are having a destructive ripple effect throughout the community.
“There are so many mothers in this industry who have to work all day and can’t take care of their children,” Alejandra told me, her young daughter cradled on her lap. “Kids go to school and get out at 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and their parents don’t come home until 1 in the morning. So what do these kids do during that time? How can our kids grow up and be cared for when their parents are gone?”
“In the United States,” Carlos added, “people love flowers. But they have no idea what goes on here. A husband might give his wife a bouquet of flowers, and it’s a beautiful gesture. But he doesn’t know about the pain it took to get it there. People in the United States just don’t think about all this.”
Follow Michael Zelenko on Twitter: @mvzelenks