Cablegate: Colombian Flower Industry Makes Social As Well As


DE RUEHBO #8534/01 3482116
R 142116Z DEC 07




E.O. 12958: N/A


1. Colombia's flower industry contributes USD 1 billion to
the economy and directly employs 100,000 workers, the
majority of them female heads-of-households. The industry
spends millions on social programs for its workers and has
developed a certification program that has dramatically
improved environmental standards. Still, critics complain
that the industry has not supported workers' freedom of
association and workers' rights are marginalized.
Acknowledging the issues, the industry's main certification
program now explicitly supports freedom of association and is
considering ways to improve other labor issues. With
increased direct flights to the U.S. and growth between 20-30
percent, the industry predicts a "rosy future." End Summary.

A Blooming Business

2. Over the last 40 years Colombia's flower industry has
evolved into the world's second largest flower exporter,
directly employing 100,000 people and contributing close to
USD 1 billion to Colombia's economy. Flowers are the
country's second most valuable agricultural export (after
coffee). Colombia exports 98 percent of its flowers, with 80
percent headed for U.S. and the rest bound for Europe and
Japan. Forty large farms (50 hectares) control one-half of
the market with the rest equally divided between 60 medium
(20 hectares) and 200 small farms (less than 20 hectares).
Eighty percent of export flowers grow within a few hours
drive from Bogota because of the large labor pool, good
growing climate, substantial water resources and easy access
to an international airport. The flower industry currently
uses 75 percent of all Colombian air cargo space. The
Colombian Association of Flower Exporters (Asocolflores),
which represents 75 percent of all flower exporters, said
cargo availability has been one of the industry's biggest
bottlenecks. Industry experts predict that increased direct
flights to the U.S. would generate increased growth of 20-30
percent over the coming years.

Deeply Rooted Social Values

3. The flower industry is a leader in corporate social
responsibility in Colombia. Ernesto Velez, Chairman of the
Board of Asocolflores told us 100 percent of the workers for
Asocolflores' 225 member companies are covered by social
security, 85 percent are permanent employees, and 75 percent
receive 20 percent or more above the minimum salary. Velez
also said the industry plays an important role in social
stability as over 60 percent of the workforce are female
heads-of-households. The industry spent USD 14 million on
social investments in 2006. Asocolflores runs a School of
Floriculture, supported by USAID, that reaches out to victims
of Colombia's conflict offering them vocational training,
psychological support and other opportunities with the goal
of reintegrating them back into society. Asocolflores also
created daycare centers for 20,000 children, and helped
almost 5,000 families own their own home.

Florverde: A Homegrown Certification Program

4. In 1996 Asocolflores created an industry certification
program, "Florverde", which requires that companies meet
specific environmental and social standards. Florverde
consistently raises the standards creating "continuous
improvement among member companies" according to Florverde's
Director Juan Carlos Isaza. With 140 participating member
companies, Florverde currently certifies almost one-half of
all flowers exported from Colombia. Isaza said Asocolflores
created Florverde to provide flower growers with an
internationally recognized certification that would increase
their marketability. He emphasized that the real strength of
Florverde is its continuous efforts to improve standards.
For example, Florverde environmental standards exceed
government regulations for pesticide application, water use,
biodiversity, and waste management. According to Isaza,
these standards have helped Florverde farms reduce their
pesticide use by between 40 to 80 percent over the last ten

5. Pedro Mejia, Managing Director of the non-Asocolflores
associated flower business Benilda Flowers, agreed that
Florverde makes Colombian flowers more marketable
internationally. About 10 percent of Colombia's flower
growers, including Benilda, use a Europe-based certification
program, EurepGap (European Good Agricultural Practices).
Mejia said the European market still considers EurepGap a
more rigorous certification program, largely because it uses
outside auditors to ensure member compliance, in contrast to
Florverde's self-certification. Mejia thinks the flower
business has to respond to NGO concerns because international
consumers are increasingly sensitive to how products are
produced: his worst nightmare would be the presence of
picketers in front of WalMart on February 13 protesting the
sale of flowers from Colombia.

Progress on Some Thorny Issues

6. Aura Rodriguez, Executive Director of Cactus, an NGO
devoted to improving human rights in Colombia's flower
industry, claims Florverde standards are lower than most
international certification programs. Still, Rodriguez said
the industry has made steady progress and attributes this
largely to Florverde. Rodriguez admits Florverde has helped
reduce pesticide use and worker exposure. She said the
biggest remaining challenge is improving labor rights,
particularly the freedom to associate. Rodriguez also
pointed to another labor problem: employers insisting on
pregnancy tests for female workers. Although employers claim
the measure protects pregnant women from exposure to harmful
chemicals, Rodriguez said they use it to avoid hiring
pregnant women and paying maternity leave.

7. Ayade Silva, President of Colombia's largest flower
workers union, Untraflores, agreed on the importance of the
freedom to associate. Silva said workers who try to organize
union activities in the flower industry have been threatened
and fired. She criticized Florverde for not explicitly
stating that members must permit workers the freedom to
associate. Silva also said employers take advantage of a
legal loophole to create worker's cooperatives, ostensibly
owned and controlled by workers, but in reality intended to
reduce workers' rights.

8. Isaza told us Florverde standards did not initially
include freedom to associate because the right is already
guaranteed by law and because the flower industry's 14
percent union membership is the highest in the private
sector. He acknowledged, however, that the omission was a
mistake that weakened Florverde's image. Isaza said that
since July 2007 Florverde has required that all members
provide evidence of workers' freedom to associate, a system
for worker complaints, and a collective bargaining mechanism.
Isaza said Florverde also plans to issue standards to reduce
pregnancy testing and the inappropriate use of workers'

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