- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

FACATATIVA, Colombia — When workers at Colombia’s largest flower grower organized themselves into a union a few years ago, they won protections against overly long hours, potentially dangerous exposure to pesticides and other abuses.

But in an increasingly globalized economy, the effort may also have cost the employees of Dole Food Co.’s flower division their jobs.

Last week, Estela Yepes was on her way out of work at the Splendor-Corzo flower farm outside of Bogota, the Colombian capital, when she was handed a one-page letter.

A slump in flower prices and new competition from China and Africa was forcing a major restructuring of Dole Fresh Flowers, the letter read. As part of the cost-cutting, the company was closing two of its 13 farms and laying off a third of its work force in Colombia, some 2,600 employees in all.

A much smaller operation employing 900 in neighboring Ecuador is also to be shut down.

The drastic downsizing immediately sparked fears of a domino effect throughout an industry that employs 110,000 people in Colombia and provides 5 percent of this country’s legal foreign trade revenue.

Ms. Yepes, who after 15 years on the job was earning just a few dollars more than the monthly minimum wage of $170, and her co-workers insist their farm was singled out for closure because of their success in organizing the industry’s first independent union, Untraflores.

Among the union’s hard-fought achievements: the termination of an incentive pay scheme that it purports Dole manipulated to impose a crushing workload and illegally deny workers much-needed overtime pay.

Dole’s layoffs in effect delivered a fatal blow to the combative union, 75 percent of whose 1,200 members work at Splendor-Corzo.

Union members call the announcement’s timing suspicious, coming less than two weeks after the expiration of a collective bargaining agreement that Untraflores was fighting to replace.

John Amaya, president of Dole’s flower division, acknowledged to the Associated Press that labor relations at Splendor-Corzo were “conflictive.”

But the Miami-based executive said the decision to close the farm, its biggest and costliest to run in Colombia, was based solely on bottom-line considerations. Fewer than half the jobs cut were union-affiliated, he said.

The company hopes the restructuring will improve the cut-flower division’s annual cash flow by $35 million and reverse a trend of losses that last year reached $5.1 million, on $171 million in revenue.

“We’re losing money at this business and we had to do what was right to turn our business around. There was no effort to single out any union,” said Mr. Amaya.

To be sure, as much of a raw deal workers complain they’re getting, it’s not all a bed of roses for Colombia’s flower industry either.

The industry has been hard hit the past two years by a 25 percent strengthening of the Colombian peso against the dollar, which has directly affected labor costs, about half a farm’s expenses. Rising fuel prices for the four cargo planes that take off daily for the United States, where 85 percent of production is sold, has also taken its toll on the industry.

Then there’s China, which with its aggressive push to export a billion stems by 2010 is threatening to overtake Colombia as the world’s second biggest flower producer after the Netherlands.

Dole is Colombia’s largest grower, with a nearly 20 percent share of the more than $906 million in annual exports. Its entry into Colombia, through a series of high profile acquisitions over the last decade, did a great deal to invigorate the four-decade-old industry.

Colombia now supplies about 60 percent of the U.S. flower market and the government counts on the industry to serve as an important alternative to coca, the basis of cocaine.

Flower exports were up 29 percent in 2005 over 2004.

But with Dole’s hard-nosed focus on boosting competitiveness came complaints of worker abuses and environmental degradation to the waterlogged savanna surrounding Bogota where the country’s 500 flower farms are mostly located.

For years before Untraflores arrived on the scene in 2001, safety standards to protect workers from the poisonous chemicals were at best only halfheartedly enforced. A double-digit unemployment rate and Colombia’s poor labor record — it has one of the lowest union membership rates in Latin America — assured companies an all but free hand in the hiring and firing of workers who got sick, pregnant or were too old to keep up.

A tour this week of a Dole farm included a visit to a stem-cutting assembly line where consultants used stopwatches to time workers’ output.

A block-lettered sign reminds the women “Thank God I awake before dawn to work and not to look for work.”

Ms. Yepes isn’t for a second thinking about relinquishing her job without a fight.

A union official, she’s urging workers to reject the company’s buyout offer, desperately hoping its just the latest attempt by Dole to wrest concessions from employees.

“We’re not going to give up now after fighting so hard to get what little respect we have,” she said.

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