Naya Koulocheri: Happy International Flower Workers Day!

Ben Wray

Naya Koulocheri (@Naya_Koulocheri), journalist and content researcher, writes about the side of Valentine’s Day we ignore – the flower workers in Kenya and Colombia who deliver our commodified shows of affection

LET’S be honest, Valentine’s Day is the tackiest celebration ever existed on the face of our capitalistic universe. They say that every time you buy products with the slogan “world’s best boyfriend/girlfriend”, your soul dies a little. 

Valentine’s Day may drive pointless consumerism, put in question our sanity and good taste, but we can live with that – this is exactly what we’ve been doing all our lives.  However, our obsession to commodify everything, including the mere idea of being in love, has perpetuated the suffering of people living in the southern hemisphere. Again.

Valentine’s Day would mean nothing without the contribution of the 230,000 flower workers in Colombia and Kenya. Colombia is the world’s second largest exporter of cut flowers and the US is its biggest buyer, whereas in the UK 70 per cent of our flowers originate from Kenya. Once again, US and Europe lead the way by creating high-quality jobs and sustainable economic development. Sure, floriculture may be subject to loose regulatory status and therefore one-fifth of the chemicals used in these countries are banned or untested in the US but they shouldn’t complain – our demand for cheap flowers gives them work!

And yes, sure, the flower workers in Colombia – women represent 65 per cent of this workforce – may need to work a 20-hour shift during peak seasons for the minimum monthly wage ($265.45), which doesn’t even allow them to cover their basic needs, but would it be better if they were unemployed? And okay, there may be gendered injustice in the industry, with women being forced to take pregnancy tests or show proof of sterilisation before they are given the job, as well as harassed and silenced, but this happens everywhere, so, let’s not make a big deal out of it. 

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While researching to write this article, I was surprised to find a scarcity of updated information. There are quite a few press articles based on testimonies of people affected but the interest and therefore the funding for this type of research appears to be rather limited, especially when compared with the abundance of evidence available about the cocoa workers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana.

The most recent report about floriculture I could find was published in 2017 by the Colombian organisation Cactus. According to this study (available in Spanish here), the hectares used for floriculture increased by 5 per cent in 2016, with the overall  production growing by 2.33 per cent in 2013-14 and 3.03 per cent in 2014-15. If you’re thinking that this trend is followed by an increase in the number of workers per hectare, I envy you for your wishful thinking. As any good, old-fashioned capitalist would tell you, a crisis can open the door to corporate heaven, allowing collective dismissals and labour market flexibility. After the crisis, it takes years (if ever) to recover the lost ground.

The crisis of Colombian floriculture in 2010 led many production units to liquidation and the concentration of the industry in very few hands, resulting in 60,000 job losses.  With the end of the crisis and the devaluation of the Colombian peso, the flower industry started thriving again. The 196 companies of the industry increased their growth by 32 per cent in 2012-13 and by 224 per cent between 2013 and 2014.  The same trend continued in 2015: $73,824 million in net profit compared to $14,752 million in 2014. Without significantly increasing the number of workers, the rise in demand was met with introducing competition between employees – in the form of bonuses or points – with the rise of contracted daily work, creating “associates”, “shareholders” or “partners” instead of employees; and with pressures to achieve higher productivity, with each worker being assigned between 80 and 100 flower rows, compared to 20 or 30 during the 90s. That’s probably why flower workers suffer from the highest rate of carpel tunnel in Colombia, with 36 per cent of all work-related illnesses occurring in the flower industry. 

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I was unable to find a recent report gathering and reviewing any sort of quantitative evidence about Kenyan floriculture. What I did find, however, were documentaries, videos and press articles, which are overall consistent with the results of a 2004 study. In the Kenyan flower industry, employment is estimated to be between 40,000-70,000 (according to the Kenyan Embassy in Japan this number goes up to 500,000), with 75 per cent being women. Workers have reported that they are subject to compulsory overtime that is not always compensated at overtime rates and in some instances it wasn’t paid at all. This practice creates significant issues for women who struggle to arrange childcare, with the wages being insufficient to meet their basic needs. Non-permanent female workers “who become pregnant are asked to leave once their pregnancy advances or are simply not given another contract when the current one ends”.

The same study reports that despite the improvement in health and safety, many problems still persist. Workers are required to work with freshly sprayed plants or to enter greenhouses before re-entry times have expired, sometimes without even wearing protective clothing. This practice is associated with many health problems such as coughs, sore chests, skin irritation, dizziness and back problems. Sexual harassment is common in floriculture, with supervisors sexually harassing female workers “in exchange for promotion, pay rises or simply continued employment”. As women are more likely to have non-permanent posts, they are particularly vulnerable to such abuse, because the renewal of their contracts often depends on her supervisor’s good opinion. You’re right, these things are too strange for us to understand: if you are not familiar with the term, please type “sexual harassment” in your search engine. 

“Instead, celebrate February 14th as International Flower Workers Day, talk about it on your (anti-)Valentine’s night out and show your solidarity to flower workers across the world.”

I know I can be such a party pooper sometimes. Valentine’s Day is the celebration of love and you should definitely buy flowers for your significant other. If you feel uncomfortable doing so after reading this, please apply with moderation the remedy that best works for you in order to shush your social consciousness. I, for example, watch American rom-coms that turn creepy, problematic situations into romantic oases such as the film 50 First Dates, where the not-so-good-looking guy takes advantage of the attractive, amnesiac girl, while stalking and lying to her – perspective that up until recently I was unable to process.

If, however, you want to give into temptation and think again your post-modern consumerist habits, you can start by reconsidering where you buy your flowers from. This Valentine’s Day, if you can’t afford fairtrade flowers, you can offer a “100 per cent slave-free chocolate” or use your poor craftsmanship skills to create a horrific piece of art that will be special to somebody just because you will have put time and effort into it.  And do you want to hear something mad? You don’t need to wait for Valentine’s Day to be nice to each other – you can do this 365 days a year! Instead, celebrate February 14th as International Flower Workers Day, talk about it on your (anti-)Valentine’s night out and show your solidarity to flower workers across the world.

Happy Flower Workers Day to all!

Picture courtesy of Nathan Rupert