Valentine’s Day Is Made Possible Thanks to Colombian Flower Workers


Esmeralda has worked in the flower industry for so long that her body hurts. After 25 years of cultivating and packaging flowers, she was diagnosed in early February with a chronic case of carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis, meaning her hands and shoulders tingle and ache as she assembles hundreds of fresh carnation bouquets a day.

For Esmeralda, the holiday seasons are now dreaded dates on the calendar — especially Valentine’s Day. In the U.S., Valentine’s Day is seen as a special moment in the year to shower loved ones with affection and gifts, often in the form of cards and roses. But in Colombia, where Esmeralda lives, the lead-up to the holiday is anything but festive. Thousands of mostly female workers labor up to 100 hours a week, under poor conditions and pay, to satisfy the demand for flowers.

“You see a 25-stem bouquet, and you say, ‘Look at how beautiful they are,’ but no one is aware of the work that people do or that I do so that they make it to [the United States],” Esmeralda tells Teen Vogue.

While Americans used to buy most of their flowers from local growers, in the 1960s, the industry migrated to Columbia, where the equatorial sunlight lasts 12 hours a day year-round — and where workers are paid a fraction of American wages. In 1966, a Colombian agricultural worker earned a daily wage of just 82 cents compared to the $16 earned by their U.S. counterparts.

By 1980, only the Netherlands outranked Colombia in flower exports. The cut-flower industry continued to flourish in the following decades as the U.S. slashed tariffs and trade barriers with the 1991 Andean Trade Preference Act and the 2012 U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement — the latter of which then vice president Joe Biden lauded for creating “decent, good-paying jobs” in Colombia’s floriculture sector.

Today, Colombia produces $1.5 billion in exports annually, with 80% of flowers going to U.S. markets. But as the industry reaches record sales, some workers are left wondering if the floriculture companies are leaving out the very laborers who make their success possible.

In an annual anti-celebration of Valentine’s Day, some workers spend February 14 protesting minimum-wage earnings of $256 per month; the proliferation of injuries in the workforce, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and torn rotator cuffs; and the long hours that keep them away from their homes and their families. Since the 1990s, they’ve called this Flower Workers’ Day.

Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: What “Capitalism” Is and How It Affects People

If the holiday falls on a Sunday, when workers typically have the day off anyway, they congregate in public parks throughout Bogotá’s savanna, where most of the factories reside. There, they host talks and urge coworkers to organize. Due to COVID-19 restrictions this year, unions are planning virtual meetings and designing handouts outlining why they believe bosses are getting rich on the backs of workers.

Union organizations are a tiny minority within the workforce, which leaders attribute to the precarious living conditions of laborers. Many are single mothers, too afraid of losing their jobs to join a union. It’s widely known that workers who do try to unionize are often fired, isolated, or discriminated against by employers .

But Flower Workers’ Day opens the door for unionists to speak out in front of coworkers of the rights they deserve. “It’s so important to celebrate this day because it shows people how important it is to be in the union, that we are human beings and that we deserve as much respect as our employers do,” says Gloria Marroquín, president of the National Organization of Floriculture Workers (ONOF).”



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