This report makes an account of the social, economical and working conditions of laborers at flowers farms, and it is addressed to the government of foreign countries, political organizations, labor unions and social organizations abroad, multilateral organizations, NGOs and to all those who are concerned about the fate of laborers worldwide, especially those involved in the economical fields of exports. The analysis is a condensate abstract of a non-published research made by Professor Martha Vargas in collaboration with students of Sociology at the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia. This work had the input of the National Union of Flower Workers, Unitraflores[*].
Flowers’ farming was started in Colombia during the 60s under the aegis of the government through tax benefits, soft loans and devaluation of the currency. In 2011 this industry exported 1.252 million of US dollars, covering circa 7.500 hectares. This is thus the second line of agrarian exports and the sector requiring the biggest number of laborers per unit of area, that is, 15 laborers per hectare and the activity represents 25% of women’s work in the rural sector. About 200.000 people are directly or indirectly involved in the cultivation of flowers business.
Since 2005 Colombian flowers enjoy the benefits of being released from the obligation of paying customs duties at the European Community and in ATPDEA (Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication) of the United States.
The main problems that the flowers cultivation sector has had to cope with during the latest years are the revaluation of the Colombian peso, the stagnation or drop of selling prices, acute climate changes and the higher prices of chemicals used in agriculture and other inputs required for the industry. As a consideration, the industry has been benefited by generous state subsidies of about US$ 350 million.
To face with above hardships business people have relied on the resource of demanding more production from laborers, in exchange for lower wages taking advantage of both legal and illegal procedures resulting in an increase of flowers stems exports by 10% between 2006 and 2010 despite the loss of over 20.000 jobs n the sector. Each operator produced in 2006 an average of 40.489,78 stems and about 55.487,72 stems in 2010.
Between 1974 and 1993 the number of laborers per tilled hectare dropped from 30 to 19 in the case of carnations, from 20 to 13 of chrysanthemums and from 18 to 11 for roses. During the 70s the limit of attention was 8 flowerbeds per day, during the 80s it was 24 and during the 90s it was over 42 flowerbeds, for the same wages and during the same working hours.
The most salient deterioration of working conditions lies in the labor overload. The working system occurs manually, under an ill treatment of supervisors and the increase of productivity directly depends upon a bigger muscle and nervous strength. The “rewards” to workers are in the form of competitions among laborers, the pressing to make more by their supervisors, humiliations in public to those who are behind in production and threats to be laid off or the non renewal of their contracts. The extenuating long hours of work as a means to comply with the limit set to them during such seasons as Saint Valentine are usually not compensated in terms of money but in time, or simply this extra effort is not compensated. This type of surrender of laborers is contrary to any form of organization or exercise of rights.
Increase of productivity based upon the overburdening of work is seriously affecting the operators’ health conditions. The work related diseases include the wrist tunnel syndrome and other ailments of arms, reparatory problems and allergies caused by their skin contact with insecticides, pathologies of the spine, dermatitis and stress related diseases.
Even though most of above diseases are classified as work related diseases are considered as common health problems by the health entities responsible for their treatment with the purpose of preventing their costs to the company or to the insurance underwriters.
The lack of steadiness inherent to the hiring process affects all other rights. So the right of association is almost non-existent and company owners keep saying that labor union destroy the companies, therefore laborers are afraid to organize themselves, as that would mean the lack of employment. Companies use the signing collective bargains or the setting of labor unions defending only their interests, which implies that anyone who dares to freely associate is at risk of losing his or her job and to be discriminated against in terms of wages or to be badly criticized in public.
It is already customary that companies do not comply with their duty of paying the workers’ salaries, benefits or the contributions to the social security, even though the payroll discounts are made for such payments. This practice is also applicable to other legal duties of companies, the healthcare providers known as EPS suspend the affiliation of thousands of employees, so employees loose many years of affiliation to their pension plans. The Ministry of Labor just does not care.
Out of 225 companies, only seven large groups have a share of 50% of sales. These companies are Grupo Chia, The Elite Flower, Jardines de Los Andes, Ipanema Guensuca, Sunshine Bouquet, Falcon Farms, and Hosa. These and 33 other companies made 73% of exports in 2011.
For more than ten years temporary companies, contractors and cooperatives of associated work (which were organized by the flowers companies in many cases) made working contracts with laborers for the supply of personnel to the flower farms. There are cases where the entire workforce has an indirect working contract, which is a complete aberration in the light of the labor law applicable in Colombia.
In practice, labor justice is beyond reach due to the costs to retain a lawyer’s services, the delay of legal cases, and the fact that workers do not have the time to appear in court so many times, as at the time a worker is out of his or her job that does not pay his or her salaries, that workers has to start to work for another company where he has to ask for permissions to go to court, which is a risk of losing the job again.
Delays have resulted in many labor lockouts and protests. Workers, whose meager incomes have been striped of, have been forced to act according to the two only legal remedies and under the legal assistance by Untraflores to demand their rights. These two resources are: 1) the dismissal assignable to the employer, regulated by section 62 of the Labor Code resulting from the permanent lack of compliance with the labor duties by the employer, and 2) the strike assignable to the employer where laborers act under item e) in section 379 of the same Code, which declares the labor strike as legal when the employer fails to comply with his duties. The Constitutional Court, which is the highest Colombian jurisdiction body, has endorsed this kind of labor strikes through several Judgments such as C-1369/2000 and C-201/2002.
Nevertheless, the Tribunal of the Department of Cundinamarca which is to settle in the second and last stage of most of the labor conflicts of floriculture as most of the flowers tills are located in territories under its jurisdiction has made its decision of closing these legal opportunities to claims filed by workers.
In the light of visible breach to the law, such as the lack of payment of wages or benefits as it occurred at Agricola Guacari, which led employees to the labor strike in the first place, and then to their dismissal on the ground of an event assignable to the employer, such Tribunal released a decision that disregards the minimal labor rights instituted by the national and international laws. The decision states that “working contracts can be terminated by justified cause only if the employer displays a continued or reiterated conduct resulting in the regular and permanent breach of the working contract provisions aimed at depriving the interests of workers (…) and there are no signals that C.I. Agricola Guacari Ltda has incurred in a serious infringement of the law with respect to any of the special duties that the law imposes upon it in its capacity of employer”.
It is not sufficient for the Tribunal that social security contributions, the benefits or salaries and parafiscal are not paid for several months. In other words, workers who earn the minimal salary confined to lead a life of wants are forced to wait that companies fail to comply not by months but for years with their payments, because the Tribunal decides to consider that it is not a “serious infringement to any of the special liabilities posed upon the employer” to subject entire families to hunger conditions, denial of attention in their health needs, and to be evicted from their houses.
It is evident that higher court judges are lenient to the employer, while they are stern with the deprived claimants. The latter are required to produce “authentic” evidences that the employers non-payments have forced the employees to bear their own “medical and drug expenses” or proofs on the “denial of medical services”.
The remaining claims regarding the lack of payment by the employer of the so-called “parafiscales” (instituted by the Colombian laws) which are a condition for the granting of subsidies in money for the jobholders’ children and dependant parents of the employee and subsidies granted by the State for the purchase of a house are not according to the Tribunal “sufficiently serious” causes for the labor strike by claimants.
To complete the picture, the Tribunal appears very flexible and understanding in the light of the non payments by the employer by stating that “a large percentage of the industry was affected by the crisis in the flowers sector …”
The above judgment produces very serious consequences: the situation in the industry of flowers will become even more distressing for workers, as the judgment awards a carte blanche to employers to violate the essentials of the working contract leaving the employee without any chance to defend himself and subjected to servitude or to a slave like condition. As an example of the higher court, the first stage judges have started to issue their judgments vehemently against employees and being extremely softy with employers.
Workers to a large extent have completed only elementary education. Their children nowadays go to schools close to their houses, but when children complete their secondary education, if they want to go to college their plans are frustrated for the cost of tuition and support.
Families usually consist of five to eight people therefore the overcrowding is evident in small size houses. Most live in rented homes and in houses shared with other families. The few of them who own their homes have had to save for many years to buy a land and then running into debts and make enormous sacrifices to build their house. On top of this, benefits given by the state for houses for the poor are too far from reaching by the worker, due to the precariousness of their working contracts and also because of the lack of payments to the so called Cajas de Compensacion (Welfare Funds) by the employers, which is an essential requisite to access the subsidy to buy a low-cost house.
The care of children in many cases is entrusted to the workers’ neighbors or relatives with those who do not live in the same house, but there are also cases of families who do not have the possibility of leaving with children to the care of reliable people who can see for the children integrity. The scarce attention that jobholders can give their children is the cause of pregnancies at very early ages, drug addiction and juvenile crimes.
The family shopping basket is limited to the basic elements, or what is just enough to live by. Malnutrition is to be highlighted herein due to the large deficit in the consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals and to the lack of meeting the caloric needs. They on the other hand eat lots of carbohydrate foods. The products they eat are of poor quality in general, and they are usually what they can buy at low prices. The filling of intellectual, spiritual or amusement needs is almost absent, with a minimal access to the modern life amenities or essential elements such as information technology.
Laborers working and life conditions have been rapidly deteriorating. There is an outrageous increase of productivity by the labor overburden and the extension of the working shift without an extra payment for overtime. Some official provisions such as Law 50/90 and Law 789/2002 make the situation even worse by affecting the labor stability, benefits and payment of overtime, or Sunday or holidays work. But even this fragile legal framework is not adhered to by employers.
The deterioration of labor conditions and of the life itself is seen through the low incomes, the extenuating work related diseases, the poor diet and the lack of the employee’s own home.
The Ministry of Labor instead of favoring laborer causes harm to them, as it has not been an institutional entity promoting the well being and defense of the rights of workers.
Subcontracting has made laborers more vulnerable to the violation of their rights and it has sponsored together with the employers’ campaigns the fear and even the reluctance towards the labor union organization. Since there is a large supply of labor employers take advantage of this fact to transform operators into a humble working force and put on their shoulders the costs of revaluation of peso and the international competition.
The Judicial Power growing trend to favor the employers in front of the claims for the compliance with their labor duties can be pointed out as the most dramatic and dangerous aspect of the current conditions, as this situation curtails any possibility that workers may have and practically it closes all the possible paths that workers may use for their claims.
[*] Research directed by Martha Cecilia Vargas Torres, Sociologist, Master of Planning and Regional Development Administration CIDER, Universidad de los Andes, Professor of the Faculty of Sociology at the Universidad Cooperativa de Colombia and official of the Ministerio de Vivienda Ciudad y Terorio. Co-investigators: Javier Francisco Franco and John Jaime Posada.
Students who participated in the development of research: Germán Chávez, Mayerly Corridor, Vanessa Munoz, Jessica Santiago, Oscar Segura, Lorena Velasco, Edison Child, Cristian Sanchez, July Rojas, Sandra Bautista, Sebastian Zambrano, Desmon Quiroz, Rafael Herrera, David Ernesto Gomez and Fin
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