14 March 2012
It’s a busy time of year for florists. Many of us buy flowers on Mothers’ Day. It’s a special treat; you choose the ones she likes, the ones that will make her happy. Looking at the flowers she’ll know you thought of her, they’re a symbol of love and thanks.
But for 17-year-old Fabio, and many others like him, cut flowers have a different meaning.
`My mother would often arrive home late and sleep for one or two hours. I would tell her to find work in something else; that I didn’t like it. But although this work wasn’t good, there weren’t a lot of options,’ he explains.
`My Dad worked in construction, so my brother and I were alone almost all day. Now my mum is all haggard, she cannot work. In a day she earned less than 20,000 pesos, the cost of one bunch.’
The flower industry provides a lot of jobs in the region around the Colombian capital Bogota but the working conditions are less than ideal.
People work long hours, especially in high season, for the minimum wage. Contracts are temporary, with few or none of the work benefits like sick pay or pensions. Many people are hired through intermediary companies so it is hard to know who to complain to if you are brave enough to try.
Women make up 65% of the workforce and, incredibly, many companies ask them to take a pregnancy test to prove they aren’t pregnant before getting work.
Alba Gallego, from Facatativá, a region of Colombia where most of the women work in the flower industry, explains the affects working conditions can have on family life: `The mothers who have spent 20-30 years working in the industry don’t know their children.
`Other people have brought them up because they haven’t been there for them. The children grow up without affection, without support, but with adult responsibilities.’
Despite government subsidies to the flower industry in Colombia, companies cut more than 12,000 jobs in 2010 while production levels remained the same. Fewer workers are getting more done.
In the Colombian flower industry independent trade unions have all but disappeared, and the unions that exist are owners’ unions.
Christian Aid partner Cactus plays a key role in raising awareness about workers’ conditions.
Its reports help people understand they are not alone, as well as being useful tools to lobby government and companies to improve working conditions. It helps people who make complaints find lawyers to represent them at an affordable price. Key to all of its work is to help people get organised and to work together.
Omaira Paez from Cactus says:`Belonging to a union is important not only because it allows people to defend their labour rights, but also because it is proved that those groups who have been able to organise themselves have better mental health conditions.’
There is hope. Fabio is now a member of a local youth group supported by Cactus. This is one of the many different groups where people meet to share experiences, to support each other to find ways to change the situation they’re in.
This Mothers’ Day, if you’re buying flowers for your mum, spare a thought for the people who cut them for her. With support from organisations like Cactus perhaps the flower industry will soon become an industry which symbolises love and thanks to everyone.
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