In Ecuador, Concerns Raised over Rose Workers

Roses are a $300 million industry in Ecuador: picked, pruned, and packaged predominantly by women. Critics say the workers are exploited, working for $1 an hour. The workers insist that the jobs provide them with financial independence.

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A rose by any other name might be a social revolution. That at least is what Shakespeare might have said if you lived in Ecuador. The tiny Andean nation's booming $300 million fresh flower industry employs mostly women. And that gives women unprecedented control over their family's finances and future.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Ecuador and reports how the rose business has changed the lives of thousands of women, despite some thorny issues along the way.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Ecuador's Andean valleys amidst snow-capped peaks provide the kind of blanket-cuddling climb that roses crave. Twelve hours of natural light 365 days a year - Ecuador lies on the equator - also makes this photosynthesis heaven. Agronomist Bernardo Espinoza(ph) experiments with novelty breeds in his showcase greenhouse that grows roses as tall as 10 feet.

Mr. BERNARDO ESPINOZA (Agronomist, Ecuador): This is a beautiful pink.

MCCARTHY: That looks like a baseball mitt it's so big.

Mr. ESPINOZA: Yes. I am putting almost half an acre of this variety, and I hope this will make money.

MCCARTHY: Israel-imported drip irrigation is the elixir beneath the white-canopied hothouses that lie in the grounds, once the hacienda of Bernardo's in-laws.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language).

MCCARTHY: In the post-harvest warehouse, ramrod stems fill huge vats - a riot of reds, pinks and yellows. Workers, mostly women, package 15,000 roses a day here. The pace explains how tiny Ecuador has become one of the world's leading flower exporters. Nimble fingers fly over thorn-filled stems arranging, bungling and binding bouquets of 25 buds. Most are sold for 20 cents a stem to buyers in the United States who supply Wal-Mart. The goal for each woman: 500 stems an hour, or one bouquet every three minutes.

Mr. ESPINOZA: The two ladies in front, they're almost reaching 600 stem in an hour. They are very good.

MCCARTHY: Do they have rapid motions stress problems?

Bernardo says he rotates his workers to avoid the ailment. Only a handful of Ecuador's 400 flower farms have unions protecting employees. Human Rights groups blame weak labor laws. The International Labor Rights Fund, an advocacy group, says flower growers also intimidate their workers by telling them that unions are a financial burden that drives companies under. Bernardo Espinoza says unions and other sectors have made demands that make it impossible to reach the highest production levels.

Mr. ESPINOZA: When I talk to my employees, I told them we have to reach this point. If we reach this point, we will be able to have a bonus. The employees learn that they have to work together with the company.

MCCARTHY: Bernardo says his workers are free to organize, but labor experts say there is little union consciousness among flower workers. And women here say they're happy to have their $1-an-hour wage, Social Security and food the owners provide. They tell me they'd like more money. But 26-year-old Lydia Mercedes Tukimotokap(ph) nervously laughs and says her co-workers can't even agree on how to ask for small things.

Ms. LYDIA MERCEDES TUKIMOTOKAP (Flower Factory Worker, Ecuador): (Through translator) We've talked together about getting a longer lunch break. But when we say, okay, we are going to tell our boss, Bernard, half of the women back out.

MCCARTHY: In Ecuador, the poor fret about eating first and working conditions second. And while a dollar an hour may seem a sweatshop wage to North Americans, in this once depressed part of Ecuador an income of $160 a month is life transforming.

Ask Lydia. Last year her husband ran off with another woman he met at Bernardo's farm, where the couple worked together. She says the workplace may have split her marriage, but this 26-year-old mother of two says it's also given her the means to reconstruct her life.

Ms. TUKIMOTOKAP: (Through translator) I have my job. I have my children. The things I love. I have my parents. I don't need any man in my life. I'd rather be by myself.

MCCARTHY: To do what? I ask. To earn money, build a house, educate my children, Lydia says.

Ms. TUKIMOTOKAP: (Through translator) I want my children to become somebody. I would like them to be engineers or an architect, or my daughter to be a doctor. I didn't have the chance when I was a girl. My parents didn't have the possibilities for me to do that.

MCCARTHY: Anthropologist Anna Maria Maldonado(ph) says these working women have enlarged their ambitions, and in this rural culture are challenging machismo traditions at home.

Ms. ANNA MARIA MALDONADO (Anthropologist, Ecuador): (Through translator) The fact that they manage money gives them more confidence, Maldonado says. If she has money, she can leave her husband, and she starts to conceive of that as a possibility she didn't have before.

(Soundbite of machinery)

MCCARTHY: Back in the warehouse where workers defoliate rose stems, economist Bernarda Mena(ph), wife of owner Bernardo Espinoza, says women are renovating the economy along with their lives. She says for the first time her employees can buy refrigerators, stereos and mattresses.

Ms. BERNARDA MENA (Economist, Ecuador): Instead of having armies of poor people, let's have armies of consumers. It's not bad.

MCCARTHY: The Espinozas' great worry is that their duty-free access to the U.S. market could expire at the end of the year. Their employee Lydia confides a more ephemeral concern: that American consumers know the toil involved in the fresh flowers they buy.

Ms. TUKIMOTOKAP: (Through translator) There's a lot of effort that we make, she says. And I wish that they could value our work and know that there's a lot of sacrifice in it for us.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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