Pesticide Action Network Updates Service (PANUPS)
February 14th is Valentine's Day, when many people look to flowers to express their love and affection. Ironically, most flowers sold in U.S. retail outlets are produced with enormous amounts of pesticides and under conditions that are frequently unhealthy for workers. Flowers imported from Ecuador and Colombia and sold at Costco, Albertsons, Safeway and Wal-Mart benefit from a duty-free arrangement requiring growers to abide by international labor standards. However, the International Labor Rights Fund reports serious labor rights violations and health and safety problems in the cut flower industry in both countries.
The December 11, 2003 issue of PANUPS covered an alarming incident in which hundreds of workers were poisoned by pesticides in a flower growing facility near Bogotá, Colombia. (See PANUPS Action Alert: Workers Poisoned in Colombia) One half of the flowers grown in this region are destined for the U.S.
As the full story of this mass poisoning has emerged, estimates of the number of workers affected sharply differ. Colombian newspapers reported 200 workers were taken to five separate facilities. Asocolfores, the Colombian Association of Flower Exporters circulated a letter a few weeks later saying that a worker had "accidentally knocked over a container with the chemical and spilled a small amount on the ground," and that a "few workers from block 16 felt dizziness and were taken to hospital." More recently, PANNA has received documentation from a Colombian hospital that the number of workers treated was actually 384. Workers experienced a number of symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning, including fainting, strong headaches, nausea, swelling, rashes, diarrhea, and sores inside and around the mouth. The Colombian flower workers' union, Untraflores, has said that the number of workers affected points to the toxicity of the pesticide or pesticides used.
The Colombian Minister of Public Health investigating the incident has reported that nine pesticides were used in blocks 16 and 17, where workers were poisoned. Two insecticides, Dursban and Lorsban, are formulations of chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate insecticide manufactured by Dow Agrosciences. Chlorpyrifos is a strong neurotoxicant and a suspected endocrine disruptor. Organophosphates, of which approximately 40 are widely used as pesticides, are associated with adverse cumulative effects, meaning that one exposure (and particularly an acute exposure, or poisoning) may increase the likelihood of negative health effects, including long term neurological damage, in the event of future exposures.
The Public Health Minister's investigation found the condition under which pesticides were stored, mixed and used also contributed to the likelihood of spills and accidents. The tools for measuring chemicals were not accurate, procedures for mixing chemicals were not clearly identified, some pesticides were stored in containers previously used to store other chemicals, and workspaces and floors were narrow and/or uneven.
The International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF) reports that two thirds of Colombian and Ecuadorian floriculture workers suffer from work-related health problems. Workers are sometimes in greenhouses when fumigation takes place, and an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey found less than a quarter of flower workers had been trained in the use of chemicals.
Other serious labor rights violations are also common, including child labor, which according to the ILO comprises 20% of flower workers in Ecuador. Workers are fired for trying to organize unions, third party contractors shuffle workers from plantation to plantation, avoiding payment of social security and inhibiting union organizing. More than 70% of floriculture workers in Colombia and Ecuador are women, and ILRF reports illegal pregnancy tests for new workers, and firing of pregnant workers. Before flower-giving holidays, workers are required to work substantial overtime to meet demand without overtime pay.
Because U.S. flower retailers purchase nearly one half of flowers grown in Ecuador and Colombia, ILRF has begun a Fairness in Flowers campaign, asking people to write flower retailers in the U.S. urging them to ensure that their suppliers comply with local labor codes and provide for workers' safety around hazardous chemicals.
The Fairness in Flowers campaign targets Albertsons, Costco, Dole Food Company, FTD.COM, Safeway, and Wal-Mart. PANNA has signed onto the campaign, and asks readers to send a Valentine for Colombian flower workers by contacting flower retailers and asking them to respect labor rights and provide for worker safety around hazardous pesticides. See the letter to retailers at the ILRF web site: http://www.laborrights.org/.
Supporting farmers' markets and local farmers is another way to celebrate Valentine's Day with flowers and remain outside of the toxic pesticides loop. Local Harvest is a web site that connects consumers to local family farmers. To find a farmers market or organic flower grower near you, visit Local Harvest at: http://www.localharvest.org/organic-flowers.jsp.
Organic flowers are also now available for shipment throughout the U.S. on the Organic Bouquet website. Organic Bouquet is a PANNA supporter, and if you visit their web site from the PANNA site, PANNA will receive a small donation. Visit Organic Bouquet at: http://www.organicbouquet.com:80/jump.jsp?itemID=0&itemType=HOME_PAGE.
Happy Valentines Day!
Sources: ILO Website, http://www.laborrights.org/; PANUPS December 11, 2003, Action Alert: Workers Poisoned in Colombia; and June 12, 2002, Floriculture: Pesticides, Worker Health & Codes of Conduct.
Contact: International Labor Rights Fund, http://www.laborrights.org, phone: (202) 347-4100, PANNA.