‘Workers get the thorns’: the moral ugliness of rose factories | Rebecca Solnit

Decades ago, the flower industry in Colombia was promoted as the replacement for another agricultural export crop, coca leaves and the cocaine made from them. The substitution was a failure – coca cultivation continues in remoter places – but a vast flower industry with its own problems has grown up in Colombia, which raises 80% of the roses sold in the US, along with many other kinds of flowers for export. The first air shipment of flowers for the US took off in 1965. The country is now the world’s second largest exporter of flowers, and the industry, which employs about 130,000 Colombians, is the leading source of jobs for women in Colombia. A similar industry in Africa feeds the European flower market.

My friend and guide, union organizer Nate Miller, had written a report on the Colombian flower industry in 2017, but he had never been able to get inside one of the factories or plantations or farms or whatever the term should be for these strange places. To our surprise, I was able to talk or rather email our way into visiting one of the rose factories, or plantations, or sweatshops in 2019. Upon our arrival, we were escorted to a sort of boardroom from which you could see a lunchroom with workers already in it – most start work very early in the morning – and told a few things that confirmed that the managers here were proud of their enterprise and somehow thought that we would be impressed.

And soon enough we were in one of the dozens of greenhouses. Each such structure consisted of a metal scaffolding with huge sheets of plastic attached to it, designed so that the sheets could in warm weather be opened up to let cooler air in and shut tight in cooler weather. We entered the greenhouse from a door at the center and found ourselves on a broad path to the opposite door. This was flanked on either side by rosebushes taller than my head stretching in rows to the far walls, each plant so close to the next that they made up a dense hedge in which individual plants were not readily distinguishable, each row so close to the next that anyone passing between them, as we soon did, had to sidle. The thorns were never far away. Strands of twine stretched from wooden posts held the stems in place, and there was a sense of crowding, of compression, of repetition, and almost of confusion from so many roses in so many rows stretching so far that vanishing point perspective came in and you could see roses and poles and support beams getting smaller and smaller in the distance that was still inside the plastic greenhouse.

They get 104 roses a year from each square meter, our guides told me, and I saw long narrow carts in which the cut roses were laid in orderly stacks. The flowers in each row were all the same color, in various stages of openness, and the name of each variety was at the head of the row. Iron Pink. Constellation. Billabonga. Privilege. Pink Floyd. Pop Star. Billionaire. Halloween. Rejected roses and trimmings were piled up in bins.

The workers have a slogan: “The lovers get the roses, but we workers get the thorns.” A rose is beautiful but a greenhouse with thousands upon thousands of roses, a place producing millions a year, with stems and leaves and petals all strewn on the floor and heaped together in bins as byproduct, was not. Insofar as these roses were beautiful, their beauty was meant to occur somewhere else, for someone else, a continent away. Some of them were grown in paper bags to protect the petals from light, and we saw a row of rosebushes whose stems culminated in brown sacks, like divas backstage with their hair in curlers.

Customs workers organize boxes containing roses to be exported for Valentine’s Day in Bogotá, Colombia.
Customs workers organize boxes containing roses to be exported for Valentine’s Day in Bogotá, Colombia. Photograph: Reuters

From this complex, we were told, as we paced and stopped and inspected and listened, they sent 6m roses to the US for Valentine’s Day and another 6m for Mother’s Day. Across the Colombian flower industry, those two holidays translate into enormous pressure on workers, longer hours and exhaustion. But the shipments go out almost daily year-round. Refrigerator trucks carrying four hundred boxes of roses apiece race to the airport where they’re loaded onto 747 airplanes and flown to Miami for distribution across the United States by more trucks. Each box holds 330 roses, and one 747 can hold 5,000 boxes, or 1.65m roses.

The idea of an immense airplane whose sole freight was roses, burning its carbon and rushing high over the Caribbean, to deliver its burden to people who would never know of all that lay behind the roses they picked up in the supermarket, was maybe as perfect an emblem of alienation as you could find. Could roses be more uprooted? They were the invisible factories of visual pleasure.

After the greenhouse came the workroom, a vast chilly structure in which roses came in from the greenhouses and went out as packaged bouquets, some already labeled with the price tag and name of the supermarket for which they were destined. It was a factory whose product happened to be roses, a rose factory. The floors were wet and leaves, thorny stems and petals were strewn across them. The workers, mostly young, mostly moving fast, wore rubber boots and gray coveralls or work shirts emblazoned with the slogans. Some wore rubber gloves as well.

There were perhaps a 150 people at work in the frigid air. The roses had been grown but the bouquets were assembled on a production line like any other mass-produced product. Men rolled big carts laden with roses across the room, and other workers, male and female, unloaded the roses wrapped in mesh rectangles and, after sorting them for color, stem length, and other qualities, loaded them on to a sort of frame like a monstrous comb the length of the room.

Others were busily stripping off some of the leaves, and yet others filled buckets with water and wheeled some of the the finished bouquets away to a room just above freezing where they were sorted for shipping. Some of the bouquets ended up on actual conveyer belts, emblematic structures of the Fordist factory. Later, from a former worker and labor rights activist named Beatriz Fuentes, I would learn how common repetitive motion injuries are that leave workers disabled, how the corporations prevent workers from unionizing, and other aspects of the moral ugliness of rose production. Nate had written in his report: “During peak seasons, for example the weeks and months leading up to Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, employees reported that work weeks can exceed 100 hours. Women, many of whom are single heads-of-households, are exposed to numerous toxic chemicals that have been linked to higher rates of birth defects.”

Was the ugliness in the roses for being produced in such a way or in us for failing to see it?