Kevin McCarty: This Mother’s Day, ask for fair flowers

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      A day or two prior to Mother’s Day, flower shops across Canada will sell more flowers than any other time of the year, apart from Valentine’s Day.

      To meet this demand, women and men are working nonstop, often without fair compensation and safe working conditions, in greenhouses across Ecuador and Colombia, two of the leading suppliers of cut flowers to the Canadian market.

      Recently I visited Cayambe, the heart of Ecuador’s flower industry, and learned that many people working in this industry are reporting serious labour rights violations.

      Cayambe is a small city that lies on the equator at the foot of Cayambe Volcano high in the Andes, north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. Due to the constant high position of the sun and the relatively cool mountain temperatures, this region of Ecuador has been a leading producer of some of the world’s biggest roses and tallest carnations since the mid 1980s.

      In Cayambe, I met Gladys, a mother of three who has been working in the flower industry for close to a decade. I visited her and her daughters in their home and she told me that prior to Mother’s Day she works 62 hours per week for three weeks without overtime pay.

      Gladys also revealed that to ensure perfect blossoms, greenhouses are fumigated with pesticides and fungicides that cause cancer, headaches, dizziness, skin, and respiratory problems. She and her coworkers are required to work in the greenhouses shortly after they are fumigated and are not always provided with proper protective equipment.

      When I asked why she continues to work at this plantation, she quietly told me, “It’s better than where I used to work.”

      In Cayambe I also spoke with a plantation-worker-turned-lawyer who defends men and women against labour rights violations in the flower industry. He confirmed that Mother’s Day intensifies the exploitation of plantation workers and many Ecuadorian mothers are forced to work gruelling hours away from their children prior to Mother’s Day.

      Fortunately in Ecuador I also discovered flower plantations where staff receive fair compensation for their work and are treated according to international health and safety standards.

      In Quito, I met Sonja Gí¼ndí¼z, from the German-based Flower Label Program. FLP is a nonprofit organization that works in Ecuador to help improve the labour conditions in flower plantations. Companies that meet FLP labour standards label their flowers as FLP-certified, which indicates they have been produced according to international labour standards.

      I traveled with Gí¼ndí¼z to visit two FLP-certified flower plantations near Cayambe. These plantations are highly regulated to ensure fair and safe working conditions and staff receive a variety of social benefits such as child-care services and three meals a day.

      Although FLP works with close to 30 farms in Ecuador, FLP-certified flowers are hard to find in the Canadian market. Many Canadians are not aware that plantations workers are being exploited in Ecuador and are not demanding flowers from FLP farms.

      Gí¼ndí¼z pointed out that without greater consumer demand for “fair flowers”, men and women will continue to be exploited in the Ecuadorian flower industry. She remarked, “This Mother’s Day I hope more Canadians will ask for fair flowers that come from FLP farms; consumer demand is the key to improving the situation here in Ecuador.”

      Kevin McCarty is a Canadian freelance journalist working in Ecuador.