A history of strained labour relations
The South American cut-flower industry began making strides in the 1980s and 1990s, when flower producers shifted operations to take advantage of an optimal combination of climate, cheap labour, and free-trade policies created by the United States government in its war on drugs. Today, Colombian flower exports dominate the American market.
In the 1980s, to solicit foreign investment, the Colombian government deregulated shift lengths, eliminated overtime pay, and cancelled permanent contracts. These factors, when combined with increased work quotas and a highly competitive marketplace, gave plantation owners the legal backing to dismiss workers who couldn’t meet expectations. Companies also fired those who complained to inspectors, suffered from health issues, or tried to organize labour unions. With no fixed contracts, workers were hesitant to take a stand for their freedom to assemble and right to safe, nondiscriminatory working conditions. When workers did organize, companies locked them out, declared bankruptcy, hired scabs, dismissed them, or set up bogus, company-controlled unions. Instead of bargaining collectively, some companies offered slightly more lucrative contracts to workers outside of unions. Other companies used propaganda to exaggerate the connection between unions and radical guerrilla operations. The result of these efforts is an ongoing disconnect between plantation owners, unions, and the 111,000 workers in Colombia’s cut-flower industry.
In Ecuador, where 120,000 workers are directly or indirectly employed by flower plantations, past attempts to organize have also been suppressed, with management blacklisting workers.
In 2005, 35 workers at Flores de la Montaña in the Cayambe region of Ecuador announced that they had formed a union. All 35 were dismissed. Within two weeks they were protesting at the plantation gates. When the Ministry of Labour recognized their union, the company sought out the workers individually and coerced them to accept compensation from the company to end their protests.
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