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Local view: Wake up and smell the facts about roses

Last November, Lydia Lopez, a flower worker from Colombia, visited Duluth to talk about the cut-flower industry. Her visit elicited many questions: Is it time we give serious attention to where cut flowers come from? Who pays the real price for t...

Last November, Lydia Lopez, a flower worker from Colombia, visited Duluth to talk about the cut-flower industry. Her visit elicited many questions: Is it time we give serious attention to where cut flowers come from? Who pays the real price for their availability? Should we add flowers to the human-rights conscious consumer list of Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, bananas and T-shirts?

Nobody can answer these questions better than Lopez. She has worked on flower farms for 24 years and was recently elected president of her local union. She traveled more than 3,000 miles from Bogota, Colombia, to Duluth and elsewhere in the Upper Midwest to tell students and community groups about the impact of globalization and free-trade agreements on the cut flower industry in Colombia.

On KUWS-FM in November, she offered a compelling testimony about the violation of labor rights, the lack of environmental protection and the deterioration of her country's local economy.

"Generally, we have ... a very, very high work load. Each individual worker has to make 35 to 50 bouquets per hour, and if you don't meet the basic requirement, they can use this as an excuse to fire you," she said, according to a transcript of the radio interview. "So we're standing for 8 to 10 hours and don't have a right to rest. The only break we have during the workday is 30 minutes for lunch; we're allowed no other breaks."

When workers feel powerless, they often turn to independent unions to work for changes. But union organizing in Colombia is not the same as it is in the United States. "Union organizing is so difficult and dangerous in Colombia," Lopez said, "and because of that, the general population is very scared to organize. A lot of multinational companies have come in, and if someone starts union organizing, they might close the plantation." In the United States, at the most a trade unionist would be fired. In Colombia, they may be killed, she said.

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Lopez urges American consumers to work in solidarity with the plantation workers to demand change. "About 60 percent of all the flowers grown in Colombia are exported to the United States and the rest goes to Europe," she said. "Those of us who are from the producing countries can be working together with you from the consuming countries, and we can demand that these companies provide their workers with a fair working environment."

Her message is not that we should stop buying flowers; the livelihoods of over 90,000 cut flower workers in Colombia depend on our purchases.

Instead she asks us to "put pressure on these companies to provide a better standard of living for workers, to care for the environment, and to claim our rights and provide our children with a better education."

So, how can you be in solidarity with Colombian cut flower workers?

Start by asking where those flowers from your local florist or grocery store come from. Notice if there is a label that indicates the brand or the distributor. Now that you know the real cost in human terms, you can become a grass-roots flower industry investigator. It only requires you to use your rights as a consumer. Ask who is the grower? Who is the distributor? Are acceptable labor and environmental standards being enforced?

Students from the College of St. Scholastica hosted Lopez when she was in Duluth, and they continue to ask about the origin of cut flowers and their real cost. In March, representatives from Witness for Peace will be in Colombia to hear firsthand reports from experts and activists about the labor and environmental conditions on the flower plantations.

They also will be learning about U.S. policies related to Plan Colombia and the proposed free-trade agreement. When they return, they will share their experiences with consumers and organizations and tell us how we can be in solidarity with the workers and their families in Latin America.

Are you ready to ask and to act?

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Lorena Rodriguez is a senior majoring in history and international studies at the College of St. Scholastica and she is the International Partnerships Coordinator with the Student Trade Justice Campaign. Currently, she is spending a study abroad semester in Uruguay.

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