Sixty-five percent of the roses, carnations, lilies, pompons, and chrysanthemums Americans give on Valentine’s Day will come through Miami International Airport from farms in Colombia, the world’s second-largest flower exporter and a country with which the U.S. recently signed a free trade agreement despite outcry from labor and social organizations over anti-union violence and labor violations.

The AFL-CIO recently sent a letter to President Obama urging him to postpone the implementation of the free trade agreement with Colombia because of anti-union violence. Labor and social justice organizations in Colombia say flower industry workers are mostly single moms who are overworked and underpaid.

According to industry spokeswomen, companies comply with labor and social standards. Christine Boldt of the Association of Floral Importers of Florida tells The Florida Independent that “right now” the flower industry is a “$1.2 billion industry.” That number represents the value of the sales between retailers and consumers.

According to Boldt, “there is no good way to get a monetary value on the flowers that come through Miami International Airport,” because when the flowers come into Miami “the Department of Consumer Affairs attaches a value based on invoice value, but that value is basically farm value.”

Boldt says she has no idea what association members’ revenue adds up to because they are private entities and there is no way to gather that information.

Ximena Franco of the Association of the Colombian Flowers Exporters in Bogotá, Colombia, tells the Independent that FlorVerde is a 16-year strategy that implements environmental and social best practices based on international standards, certified by third-party organizations to ensure, among other goals, that workers are being treated well.

FlorVerde data shows that the program had 89 certified producers and 125 certified farms in 2010. Boldt says that FlorVerde, “which has extremely high standards in social and environmental” areas, covers “almost all of our farms.”

Bogotá’s Corporación Cactus, an organization that addresses women’s issues, including labor conditions in the flower industry, published a report in May 2011 that documents labor and health issues in the flower industry.

The report (.pdf) specifically looks at the case of The Elite Flower, a company that in 2008 owned 11 farms, and in October 2011 was on a list of FlorVerde members. According to Cactus and the International Labor Rights Forum, in 2010 Elite Flower violated labor rights, setting production goals that violated health standards.

Cactus commemorates Valentine’s Day as International Flower Workers Day, concluding that these violations deeply question the certification of compliance on environmental and labor issues by third parties.

The report adds that in 2002 86 percent of Colombia’s flower industry workers were contracted directly by the companies. In 2010 that number had gone down to 58 percent. It also indicates that the flower industry is responsible for 100,000 direct jobs: 42 percent are subcontracted, 30 percent are filled by temporary jobs agencies and 8 percent are staffed by work cooperatives.

A December 2011 video released by Cactus shows the everyday life of women who work in the industry, adding that about 1 million people depend on the industry’s 182,000 jobs and that 65 percent of the workforce is made up of women:

The International Labor Rights Forum writes that with the passage of the new free trade agreement “Colombian flower exporters stand to gain tens of millions of dollars on the backs of these exploited workers.”

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