Behind Roses' Beauty, Poor and Ill Workers
With Valentine's Day fast approaching, many Americans will be searching out that perfect bouquet for their special someone: long stems, enormous red blooms, perfect unblemished petals, affordably priced . . . and possibly carrying with it a story of blighted, ruined lives. In the past five years Ecuadorian blossoms have become the gold standard among roses due to ideal temperature and soil, plentiful sunlight, and the elimination of U.S. tariffs on Ecuadorian agricultural imports in order to encourage alternatives to drug crops. While the rise of the rose industry has unquestionably done much to revive struggling rural areas in Ecuador with an infusion of $240 million annually, and the creation of 50,000 jobs that on average pay above the country's minimum wage, it has also resulted in appalling health and safety violations according to many experts. In addition to ideal growing conditions and trade assistance, Ecuador's rose industry also seems to be thriving due to a heavy reliance on highly toxic pesticides, fungicides, and fumigants, and workers so desperate for jobs that growers have had little problem getting them to work amidst these toxins without protective gear. Among the worst of the chemicals found in use on Ecuador's rose farms are such known carcinogens, acute human toxins, neurotoxins, and groundwater contaminants as captan, aldicarb, and fenamiphos---as well as several other chemicals also considered to be highly dangerous by the World Health Organization, and restricted in the U.S. Scientists and health officials alike have been frustrated in their attempts to accurately gauge the impact of the unsafe use of these chemicals due to the uncooperativeness of employers, but studies conducted by the International Labor Organization and Catholic University have suggested a problem of enormous proportions. These studies revealed not only that over sixty percent of all workers in Ecuador's rose industry experience suffer from headaches, nausea, blurred vision or fatigue, but also that women in the industry---seventy percent of the total workforce---suffer from an above average rate of miscarriages. Among the many less than romantic images to come out of the bloom boom are mothers forced to fumigate and handle contaminated flowers without protective gear, exposed to pesticide fumes at their work stations and in lunchrooms, and sprayed with chemicals as pesticides and fungicides are applied to bushes even as they are working. The resulting rashes, persistent headaches, respiratory problems, inflammation and infection of the eyelids, hair loss, kidney damage, jaundice, and loss of appetite that have caused women in their early thirties to describe themselves as very old, are hardly the picture of a Happy Valentine's Day. Compounding these problems, are company doctors interested only in treating symptoms, dismissing workers' fears, and sending them back to work, and the lack of an occupational health and safety department in either the Labor or Health Ministry of Brazil. Perhaps the worst problem, however, is the of major American florists, catalogs, and wholesalers who are interested only in "the best quality product at a competitive price," and feel that environmental and worker health issues are not their business. In an effort to tackle this problem by identifying responsible rose alternatives, European consumers have set up a voluntary certification program for growers who provide adequate protective gear, training in the handling of dangerous chemicals, and doctor examinations at least once a week.