Growing Pains: The human cost of cut flowers in British supermarkets

15 March 2007 - 1:07pm
Press release

Mothers in Colombia growing flowers for sale in British supermarkets for Mothers Day face poverty wages, health problems such as repetitive strain injuries and risk miscarriages through exposure to pesticides. The charity War on Want today revealed these findings in new research that calls on trade secretary Alistair Darling to allow overseas workers hit by UK firms to seek redress in Britain. The call - made in the run-up to Mothers Day on Sunday (18 March) - has won support from celebrity flower grower Carol Klein, who presents the BBC television programme Gardeners' World.

The World Health Organisation recommends at least 24 hours between the time flowers are sprayed with pesticides to preserve their beauty and when employees re-enter the area. But, as British supermarkets press for completed orders, many workers are told to enter greenhouses to cut the flowers without protective clothing right after fumigation. The report says Colombian women, forced to breathe in toxic chemicals, have above-average rates of miscarriages and children born with birth defects. Exposure to pesticides often results in fainting spells, chronic asthma, eye and breathing troubles, skin complaints, allergies and headaches. And though Colombia's cut flower industry employs less than one in 100 Colombians, flower workers account for one in three cases of carpal tunnel syndrome, which causes pain and muscle weakness in the hand and forearm.

Colombian flower workers complain about their pay, health, working time - up to 15 hours a day - and firms' anti-union hostility at Florverde (Green Flowers)-certified farms which flower exporters claim ensure ethical treatment for workers and the environment. The research shows Colombian flower workers - mostly single mothers - earn just over £24 a week, less than half a living wage.

At one Florverde-standard farm, when mother of four Esperanza Botina asked to see a doctor about RSI, the company refused and instead demanded that she worked extra hours. Esperanza declined and was fired without compensation - a common fate for flower workers who fall ill. Now, with severe arm pain, she cannot work on a flower farm and struggles to care for her family.

Esperanza says: "I am always short of money. The supervisors were very harsh. If anyone was sick, they would send you a memorandum or a sanction. Right now I feel like a cripple."

Claudia Luca Quevedeo is a pregnant single mother with two small daughters, owed back pay from another Florverde-approved farm whose rich owners suddenly filed for bankruptcy.

Claudia says: "What worries me the most is that I won?t have health insurance by the time the baby is born. And with so many diseases, I don?t know whether he will be healthy."

Yet Marks & Spencer has significantly increased orders from Florverde farms, Tesco buys from them and Asda is also showing increased interest in flowers with the Florverde standard.

The report cites similar poverty wages and unhealthy conditions for Kenyan flower employees. These workers, also mostly single mothers, toil long hours for little more than £5 a week - well under half a living wage - and cannot meet costs for food, housing, transport, education and health.

War on Want Chief Executive, Louise Richards, said: "Mothers in Colombia and Kenya are paying a dreadful price for growing the flowers many of us will buy for Mothers Day. British supermarkets make huge profits, but fail to ensure decent pay and conditions for these workers. Now the UK government must act to right these terrible wrongs."

War on Want says the charity does not want shoppers or supermarkets to stop buying flowers from the developing world, where people require jobs and countries need export income. It urges people in Britain to press for legislation.


CONTACT: Paul Collins, War on Want media officer - (+44) (0)20 7549 0584 office. (+44) (0)7983 550728 (mobile)

NOTES:

  • The Lima-based independent production company Pacha Films recorded broadcast-quality interviews with Esperanza, Claudia and Soris Carmenza Saenz, regional coordinator for Cactus, a voluntary sector partner to War on Want, which represents flower workers. Please contact Paul Collins if you want to use the footage/audio.
  • Seven in ten cut flowers bought in Britain come from supermarkets - Europe's highest proportion.

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