Where have all the flowers gone? To Colombia

This week in Washington, House Republicans will be holding another round of hearings on the Colombia and Panama Free Trade Agreements as they continue to pressure the Obama administration to package these with the Korea FTA and send all three up to Capitol Hill for approval. On Thursday, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) who chairs the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Trade will convene his panel to take testimony on the Colombia FTA. In 2005, Brady was the chief House sponsor of the Central America Free Trade Agreement. Republicans are getting more and more strident in their rhetoric on the three pending FTAs with Senate Republicans yesterday vowing to block any nominee for Commerce secretary or other trade-related nominations until President Obama sends trade pacts with Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval. The big sticking point with the Colombia negotiations is labor and human rights. In February, Ambassador Ron Kirk, the U.S. Trade Representative told the Ways & Means Committee that “it will be imperative to resolve issues regarding laws and practices impacting the protection of internationally-recognized labor rights, as well as issues concerning violence against labor leaders and the prosecution of the perpetrators.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed back yesterday against the GOP’s hardball tactics, telling The Hill "Democrats believe we need to focus on American jobs first," and adding “we want to make sure that our trade agreements serve the best interests of American workers and businesses, not just the economies of the foreign nations we are trading with." An examination of the Colombian cut flower industry reveals why the Obama team is trying to put America firmly on the side of human and workers rights. We buy more flowers a year than we do Big Macs, spending $6.2 billion annually. Colombia accounts for a tenth of the world's flower exports, behind only Holland's 60 percent, and provides the United States with four-fifths of its carnations and a third of its roses. Colombia has an abundant supply of cheap labor as well. The Economist maintains that growers pay their workers about $250 a month, and is geographically close to the big American market. The industry has Colombia as its second largest employer, providing some 75,000 direct jobs and perhaps 50,000 more indirect ones. All these blooms arrive in Miami where they then make their way to the florist shops and supermarkets across the U.S. But our love of cheap flowers comes at a steep cost for both domestic producers and Colombian workers. The flood of floral imports has decimated the number of cut flower growers here, shuttering greenhouses from California to Michigan to Massachusetts. According to the California Cut Flower Commission, foreign nations — primarily Colombia — now supply 75 to 80 percent of cut flowers sold in the United States. They have replaced what California growers were providing more than a decade ago. These are jobs that have withered and died. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist yet the Colombian government has failed to curb violence against union leaders. Union related murders have remained extremely high with a count of 48 murders in 2008 and 19 (as of June) in 2009. Use of toxic pesticides and fungicides (many of them banned in the U.S.) has caused work-related health problems—including skin rashes, respiratory problems, eye problems, and miscarriages—affecting over half of Colombian flower workers. In Colombia, according to the Victoria International Development Education Association, doctors in flower-producing regions report up to five cases of acute poisoning per day, and a study by the Colombian National Institute of Health found an elevated rate of miscarriages, premature births, and congenital malformations among flower workers. About 65% of Colombian flower workers are women. They are commonly required to take a pregnancy test or show proof of sterilization as a condition for hiring, as employers hope to avoid providing paid maternity leave. So things aren’t so rosy in the Colombian flower factories. It is time to tell Congress to do right by American workers and save American jobs. Contact your elected representatives.