The Hidden Price of Cut Flowers

Like many of us, I love cut flowers. A bouquet in the window makes my house feel more welcoming and warm, flowers at the bedside table in a new city are always appreciated, and I love it when people bring me flowers — though it’s certainly not required. Flowers are delightful, and there’s a reason we’ve been drawn to ornamental plants for thousands of years, and why the tradition of using cut flowers as decoration is key to so many rites of passage in our lives. Brides carry flowers, caskets are strewn with flowers, we bring flowers to the sick, to new mothers, to people leaving their jobs and starting new ones.

A massive industry has arisen around cut flowers, and what lies inside that industry is extremely dark. Many of us don’t think about that when we blithely order a bouquet from a florist, or pick up some cute flowers at Trader Joe’s on the way home, and we should be considering it, because the fact is that cut flowers come with a tremendously high human cost. Such a cost should never be acceptable, but especially for what is fundamentally a frivolity. Workers, mostly women, are dying and developing serious chronic illnesses to bring you a few cut roses for the brunch table.

Why is the flower industry so dangerous? It’s a complex combination of factors. Most cut flowers in the United States come from Latin America, particularly Colombia, where there tend to be fewer workplace regulations and restrictions on the use of pesticides and herbicides. Cut flowers are grown in massive, tight-packed greenhouses in order to maximise profits, but this environment also increases the risk of disease, infection, or infestation. Consequently, cut flowers are heavily treated with agricultural chemicals to reduce crop losses — and the workers who apply these chemicals and work in the greenhouse are provided with minimal to no protection.

That means they inhale harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, in addition to coming into constant skin contact with them. Prolonged exposure to such chemicals can cause serious chronic illnesses and may in some cases lead to death, especially for patients who do not have access to comprehensive treatment. It’s not just women, often single mothers, who pay a high price in the greenhouses. It’s also their children — very high rates of miscarriages, stillbirths, and congenital disabilities have been reported among women who work in the cut flower industry, showing that these compounds are clearly teratogenic and have serious effects on the developing fetus.

Workers may labour for 16 to 20 hours a day during peak flower season (Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are two major holidays for the US market), typically with minimal breaks and opportunities to rest. They get up extremely early to feed their children and get their families settled (women, as ever, are forced to perform more than one job) before heading to the greenhouses in the small hours of the morning to get started. In the environment of the greenhouse, temperatures can rapidly climb to intolerable levels, in high humidity designed to keep the plants happy. The results for the workers, of course, are less happy.

In addition to getting ill from the agricultural chemicals used on flower farms, workers also face repetitive stress injuries from cutting, trimming, and arranging flowers. Some may develop shoulder and back problems from bending, stooping, and twisting their bodies. Cuts from garden tools and thorns can become horrifically infected. Most women working in the greenhouses go to great lengths to keep their children out of the flower industry, knowing what awaits their daughters if they fall into the trap of entering the cut flower trade. Even after years of work, labourers earn salaries of just a few hundred dollars a month, not enough to develop a savings or help their children pursue a better life.

Workers who protest may find themselves without jobs, while those who incur injuries on the job struggle to access medical care. If a company agrees to pay for care after a lengthy investigation that will attempt to shift blame for injuries from itself to the worker, getting to a doctor is no guarantee. Notably, the industry preferentially chooses women as employees, claiming they’re quicker and more agile for the delicate work required in the greenhouses — but, of course, the culture surrounding women’s rights, pay equality, and place in work environments provides a tempting incentive for companies concerned about bottom lines. It’s cheaper to hire women, and there’s less danger, companies think, of worker organising and other attempts to improve working conditions.

That may change, with workers discussing the possibility of unionising and gathering together to promote a more sustainable working life, and a safer one. Their work doesn’t just address their own horrible working conditions and abusive employers: it’s also important for the environment, as the cut flower industry is extremely hard on the environment, between chemical spills, excessive use of water, and inefficient use of resources. The cut flower industry is yet another example of a situation where environmental justice, racial justice, and class justice collide, providing a perfect opportunity for cooperative organising to force large flower suppliers to clean up their business practices.

For now, consumers have lots of alternatives to feeding the industry. They can choose to buy locally, from trusted sources at farmers’ markets and similar locales (it’s advisable to actually see the flower growing and cutting operation to verify the safety and comfort of the working conditions), to rely on growing flowers and indoor plants themselves, and to pressure the flower industry. Imagine what would happen if everyone in North America collectively stopped buying the blood-stained flowers of the Latin American flower industry. The industry arose to feed our rapacious desire for pretty things, but we have the power to reshape that industry by voting as consumers.

Image: la bouquet de la mariée, claire poisson, Flickr.