Saturday, February 15, 2014

Hearts and Flowers

 COLOMBIAN flower worker

YESTERDAY was St.Valentine's Day, and having been cheered amid the lingering Winter's harsh winds to receive a card myself, I put aside my usual grumbles about commercialised calendar occasions and set out with renewed spring in my step to keep a social engagement. 

Today I can turn to a report by Paddy McGuffin in Friday's  Morning Star which says Valentine's Day "is the most lucrative date in the flower retailers’ calendar yet workers in developing countries are risking their health and toiling for a pittance supplying British supermarkets".

"Bouquets are sold for vastly inflated prices but research by anti-poverty charity War on Want has found the mainly female workforce in Colombia and Kenya supplying those flowers continues to slave for as little as half the living wage.

"Workers also suffer problems such as disabling repetitive strain injuries and miscarriages through exposure toxic to pesticides, the charity said.

"Supermarkets sell around 70 per cent of all the flowers bought in Britain — the highest proportion in Europe. While many British firms have adopted voluntary standards for their suppliers, these are still failing to protect the health and safety of workers or ensure basic workers’ rights.

"War on Want believes government regulation is necessary to introduce binding legislation to hold companies to account for the impacts in their supply chains.It argues that workers supplying multinational companies in Britain should have the right to redress in this country and the ability to seek compensation for damage to their health or loss of earnings as the result of actions of British companies and their suppliers.The charity is calling for the establishment of a supermarket watchdog to tackle abuses by British firms and their suppliers."

The Star quotes War on Want spokesperson Paul Collins:
“Millions of people buying Valentine’s Day roses for their loved ones will be shocked to learn that many workers supplying them face poor pay and conditions. It is nothing less than a disgrace that company bosses are piling up profits while Kenyans on flower farms struggle to feed themselves and their families, and live in slum housing. British corporate leaders must ensure a living wage and decent conditions for them.”
Paul Collins added that with London Fashion week due to begin today, “we urge shoppers not only to press retailers on flower workers’ treatment, but on the need to guarantee a living wage and good, safe conditions for those who make our clothes or supply fruit, tea and wine sold in UK stores.”

While we are thinking about those flower workers, maybe we should also be asking whether growing flowers for export in food hungry regions of the world, then flying them to the wealthier places that are suffering austerity, is the most rational and human use of the global environment. It's  a thought.

 As we've been reminded, Britain is not immune from natural disasters and the possible effects of global warming, or governmental failure to heed warnings, and the same certainly goes for exploitation. Reading about the flower workers in Colombia and Kenya reminded me of something else.

Here is a BBC item from five years ago:

Flower pickers were 'slaves'

A group of more than 50 Greek nationals have returned home after payment for work on a flower farm in west Cornwall failed to materialise. 
  The workers say they were treated as "slaves" and had to survive on meagre rations during their time in the Hayle area.

The claims come as the issue of so-called gangmasters using cheap migrant labourers in the UK is highlighted following the deaths of 19 cocklers in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire.
Greek police are hunting the gangmasters who recruited the 54 flower workers in the village of Sofades in the north of the country.

Slice of bread 
The Greek embassy said the village had a high rate of unemployment and the workers were offered up to £25 a day and free board.

But they were not paid and three of them had to share a slice of bread and a tin of food a day.

The Greek group told Reuters news agency that they had arrived in Britain legally in mid-January to take up jobs.

The group, among them 10 women, travelled to their workplace to find they would be staying all together in a barn with no heating or proper plumbing.

We'd come back to that shed where we were sleeping and get dog food cans for dinner

"We were out working like slaves everyday... picking flowers," said Thomas Dalipis, one of the workers.
"We'd come back to that shed where we were sleeping and get dog food cans for dinner, and not even one per person.
"Ten people had to share one cigarette."

Mr Dalipis said at the end of the first week, the workers asked for their wages but the boss refused, saying they were still in his debt as he had put up the money for their fares from Greece.

"Same story the next week," he said. "We tried to make a run for it but they sent in some heavies with sticks one night and threatened to hurt us. They beat up a couple of people as well."

After two weeks, the group got in touch with their home town and the Greek embassy co-ordinated their return on Wednesday night when coaches picked them up from their accommodation at the Marsh Lane industrial estate in Hayle.

Devon and Cornwall Police were on hand to help, but have received no complaints from the workers.
Many Cornish flower and bulb farms rely on foreign workers and local MPs have raised concerns about the influx of illegal workers as demand grows.
Story from BBC NEWS:

I like that bit about local MPS concern at the "influx of illegal workers" - not the illegal exploitation of migrant workers, from the fields of Cornwall to the sands of Morecambe Bay, where those cockle pickers were drowned so far from home.. It sums up a lot about the views of papers like the Daily Mail and so-called "Middle England".

I'm glad to hear the South West of England TUC has published a fact-filled broadsheet on the truth about migrant workers, and now the Southern and Eastern Region has decided to follow.

About that 'social engagement' I mentioned (I'm sure my readers are dying to know more), I had agreed to join some young friends clearing old, obsolete office equipment and other junk out of Willesden trades hall so they can put the space to better use. After hauling the stuff out in the rain to the waiting lorry it was good to relax together, enjoy some tasty home made food one of the comrades had prepared, and talk politics. It's good to see younger people bringing new life into our old, neglected and even decrepit institutions (they have already established an extensive library in the trades hall just when the local authority is closing their's), and being invited to help them is a privilege.

The other week I was enjoying a Burns Night Supper at West London Trade Union Club, in Acton, and while enjoying my second pint before they piped in the haggis, I heard from Ealing Trades Union Council secretary Eve Turner about her plans for an International Women's Day event in the club. Now I have the details:  


Saturday March 8th      7.30 pm

 West London Trade Union Club, 33–-35 High Street Acton W3

 We are delighted to welcome:

 Ø Christine Blower - the dynamic General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers

Ø Jackie Simpkins from War on Want who will talk about some of the inspirational battles against poverty by women workers around the world 

 Bar, food & music by the amazing


 All welcome! Entrance free (donations welcome)

 Organised by Ealing Trades Union Council and the West London Trade Union Club


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