Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the Washington Post delivered up a love poem to Colombia’s flower industry and the joys of globalization. The story must have been a hit with Post owner Jeff Bezos, especially as subscribers to Amazon Prime, owned by Bezos, get a special deal on delivery of roses purchased from Whole Foods, also owned by Bezos, which buys its “Whole Trade® Roses” from Colombia. That’s what I call news synergy.
The Post‘s story — “In rose beds, money blooms; How the rose trade lifted Colombia – and nearly erased an American industry — was reported from “the savanna outside Bogota,” where the majority of the roughly 200 million flowers Americans give one another on Valentine’s Day are grown, “summoned from the soil by 12 hours of natural sunlight, the 8,400-foot altitude and an abundance of cheap labor.”
All told, Colombia shipped about 4 billion flowers to the U.S. last year. The trade has been spurred by free trade agreements between Colombia and the U.S., and Drug War efforts by the Pentagon and Colombian military to eradicate coca production and substitute other crops.
The story notes that the American flower industry has been wiped out during the past quarter-century because of this import surge, but the overall picture is relentlessly upbeat. In fact, even as Colombian roses “have beaten back the U.S. industry, they’ve created new jobs as well,” says the story. “At USA Bouquet Company in Doral, Fla., 75 workers are crowded in one section of the room, putting imported red roses into vases and then carefully packing them in boxes for a Valentine’s shipment to Walgreens…The room is around 40 degrees, cold enough to keep the flowers dormant but not so cold that employees will quit.”
Nor does author Damian Paletta dwell much on labor conditions in Colombia, though he notes that the minimum wage there is worth about $300 per month. But for Paletta, that’s essentially a plus because the emergence of the flower industry “demonstrates the barreling, often brutal, efficiency of globalization,” and cheers the country for having “nurtured an industry that produces roses faster and cheaper than anywhere in the United States.”
Paletta’s story is top-heavy on interviews with U.S. and Colombian industry executives. The Post‘s reporter didn’t manage to track down any labor union or human rights activists, or, apparently, manage to read any of numerous critical reports about labor conditions in the flower industry.
This one interviewed workers who got paid sub-minimum wage pay, and “who could no longer work due to chronic job-related disabilities, who routinely work more than 90 hours per week, who are exposed to toxic chemicals, who experience sexual abuse at the hands of supervisors,” and whose employers aggressively suppress unions.
The Post story didn’t mention Whole Foods specifically, but the newspaper might want to look into its Whole Trade® Roses line. The supermarket buys its rose from Elite Flower, which is one of the companies discussed in the report above. It said that only a dozen of 8,000 Elite employees worked directly for the firm. The rest were hired through subcontractors, who are notorious in Colombia for paying workers below minimum wage and offering few benefits.
And by the way, those Whole Trade® Roses will cost you $25 for a dozen, about what those lucky Colombian flower workers make for roughly two days work.