CHIA, Colombia (Reuters) - As the cost of oil and value of the Colombian peso has surged this year, flower farms are turning to social programs to help workers, many of whom are displaced by a guerrilla war and under pressure to improve efficiency.
Profits are down at plantations such as the MG Farm on the outskirts of Bogota, which employs close to 1,000 workers, who harvest between 500,000 and 1.2 million flowers per week.
The industry provides jobs to tens of thousands of people who have been pushed out of the countryside by the violence of Colombia’s cocaine-funded Marxist insurgency.
Many settle in flower farm communities around Bogota and Medellin. Their jobs are what keep them out of the poverty and crime plaguing much of the country despite increased security and economic growth under U.S.-backed President Alvaro Uribe.
With stress rising at work, MG and other farms are relying more on training, day care, counseling and other support programs.
“I don’t have to worry so much about the kids while I‘m working,” says MG employee Maria Helena Espinosa, who often leaves her two children at the farm’s day-care center.
“The center is a gift. It’s a gift to all of us workers.”
Arcenio Beltran, director of harvests at MG, says workers’ loyalties to the company are strengthened thanks to such programs, which are funded by the farms.
“They know the company supports them, so they support the company,” Beltran said.
Flower farming comprises 5.0 percent of total rural employment and 5.0 percent of gross national product in Colombia.
About 75 percent of Colombian flowers are exported to the United States. Farms receive weakening U.S. dollars for their overseas sales while paying expenses in the peso, which is up about 7.0 percent against the greenback over the last 12 months.
“The future of the industry is at peril,” says Daniel Mojica. He is demanding a 20-30 percent increase in worker productivity to ensure that his farm stays in business.
The rise in oil prices in recent years makes fertilizers, plastic tarpaulins, and other key oil-based materials more expensive as shipping costs rise.
The Bush Administration is lobbying for a Colombian trade deal to buttress the Andean country, an ally bordered by leftist governments in Venezuela and Ecuador that are critical of Washington.
The outcome of the agreement, sidelined by Capital Hill Democrats critical of the Colombian government’s human rights record, is another big question for farms like MG.
“If tariff exemptions are canceled on account of not signing the Free Trade Agreement, we would immediately be leveraged between six and seven percent to enter the U.S. market,” said flower consultant Felipe Arango.
Despite 16,000 layoffs in the flower industry this year, MG Manager Daniel Mojica has not let any employees go. Part of the reason is increased productivity fostered by the nine social programs from which his workers and their families benefit.
Catalina Mojica, who coordinates social programs on her brother’s farm and other plantations, says the services help workers communicate with their bosses, which improves business.
“A person who has a better way to communicate is able to work better,” she said.
Catalina Mojica believes the one-on-one relationships formed are what set her programs apart from the few government operations intended to assist flower workers.
“We know our people, we understand their needs.”
Reporting by Alisha Laventure;