The pain of the rose

A single red rose this Valentine's Day can set you back as much as £15. But the real cost can be calculated in human terms - by those who toil long hours in appalling conditions to satisfy our annual desire to say it with flowers
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The two single lilac-coloured roses flank the entrance of Wild at Heart, a florist in Notting Hill, west London. Thanks to some gentle tweaking of their genetic make-up, they are free of thorns and their petals arch just so. Inside the shop, chrome railings give way to simple white walls, the better to set off the display of single flowers, rustic berries, and elegant twigs. A canary-yellow leather banquette lines one wall, should you feel the need to sink back and admire.

The two single lilac-coloured roses flank the entrance of Wild at Heart, a florist in Notting Hill, west London. Thanks to some gentle tweaking of their genetic make-up, they are free of thorns and their petals arch just so. Inside the shop, chrome railings give way to simple white walls, the better to set off the display of single flowers, rustic berries, and elegant twigs. A canary-yellow leather banquette lines one wall, should you feel the need to sink back and admire.

For Valentine's Day, Wild at Heart is presenting a single deep-red velvety rose swathed in purple tissue paper, dispatched in a purple box, tied with a purple ribbon (£15 plus delivery). But this is not enough for some - oh no. A gentleman came in just yesterday requiring £300-worth of red and pink roses in a display that would mollify the hardest heart.

London's flower barrows are positively bursting with red and pink blooms in readiness for St Valentine's Day. Surrounded by such perfumed splendour, why should anyone suspect that a bunch of gorgeous flowers has left a trail of human misery behind it? Wild at Heart and other top florists get most of their flowers from Holland, and are scrupulous about sourcing the blooms they import from South America. But this is not the story elsewhere. For, by dreary contrast to the pleasure they bring, some cut flowers' journey from Africa or South America to Britain has involved poor working conditions, low pay and sickness.

As demand increases in rich northern countries for pristine flowers at lower prices, so too does competition among poor southern states to supply them. Warmer climates and lower labour costs have taken producers away from Europe in favour of Latin America and Africa where controls on pesticides are more relaxed.

Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Peru, Argentina and Chile now vie with Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Namibia, South Africa and Nigeria to fill the vases of North America and Europe. Carnations might be native to Europe, but those bright-coloured powder puffs you find in a British florist for 50p a stem were probably produced in Colombia or Kenya, grown by workers exposed to daily doses of damaging chemicals, for less than 1p each. As a result of chemical contamination, two-thirds of workers - 80 per cent of whom are women - have skin disorders, breathing difficulties or neurological problems. Some also suffer miscarriages or give birth to deformed babies.

According to a World Resources Institute report published in 1999: "In Costa Rica, greenhouse workers treat flowers and ornamental plants with extremely toxic insecticides and nematicides that include methyl parathion, terbufos, and aldicarb, all compounds whose use in North America is restricted because of the health hazard they pose.

"A wide array of other pesticides with known health risks is also used. These include fungicides which are suspected carcinogens, and herbicides such as paraquat, which is extremely toxic through any route of exposure."

South America got in on the cut-flower trade as long ago as 1965 as part of American efforts to discourage the growth of another crop - the coca plant from which cocaine is manufactured. In that first year, Colombia produced 17 tons of carnations worth $20,000 in the US market. Within 15 years, that figure had grown to $100,000,000 and it is still rising - as is cocaine production.

As a result, food that Colombia used to produce now has to be imported because workers - who earn less than £150 a month - concentrate on flowers instead. The story is similar in Kenya, the other major producer. "Although they still earn a fraction of their European counterparts, the pay in producing flowers is relatively good, so workers abandon traditional crops to grow flowers," said Kass Hoek, of OLAA, a Dutch organisation campaigning for producers to adopt a code of practice on working conditions. "Where the flowers are produced, the water levels drop. In some cases, irrigation canals necessary for other crops are neglected because everyone is working for the flower producer.

"Worst of all, pesticides seep into the groundwater. Workers talk of stillbirths and of feeling nauseous, eye problems and breathing difficulties. They all have rashes. Some producers operate there purely because they can use pesticides they can't use here."

According to Mr Hoek, if workers fall ill, they are sacked. If they protest or campaign, they meet a similar fate, and attempts to set up unions are discouraged. "If workers complain, they aren't just dismissed, they're blacklisted," says Mr Hoek. "And if you're on the blacklist, no one else will employ you either."

Niala Maharaj, the Amsterdam-based author of The Game of the Rose: the Third World in the global flower trade, agrees that poor countries have been chosen because of their lax regulation. "The problem is, it is very difficult to do proper research because the landowners don't always co-operate and the workers feel that they can't speak up," she says. "So we often can't find out what is really going on. By the time the flowers arrive here for onward shipment all over Europe, all people see are these beautiful, disease-free and pristine flowers."

Early on a dark, rainy February morning in Vauxhall, south London, the destination of many of these beautiful, disease-free and pristine flowers, New Covent Garden flower market, is a riot of colour. A dirty wind blows in through the open hangar doors, met head-on by a wave of perfume from the blooms filling buckets and boxes on every side. The market is bustling with flower shop owners stocking up for Valentine's Day.

Row upon row of neatly clipped and packed flowers demonstrate the truly international nature of the business: carnations from Colombia; roses from Ecuador and Kenya; chrysanthemums from Holland; orchids from Thailand; ferns from Costa Rica. Cut flowers and plants line aisle after aisle, a beautiful commodity but not one over which the dealers can afford to be sentimental.

Sitting in the midst of it all, wholesaler Kim Richardson, 42, looks exhausted. Richardson has been working in the trade for 24 years. Like many of the other traders, he can't raise too much sympathy for other sections of the industry. Sales are down and business is tough. "Business isn't as good as it used to be because of the supermarkets getting into the game," he says. "Instead of coming here, people go to the supermarket for their blooms. I have sympathy for the people working abroad, but they are getting a fair price and we only charge a fair price. The people making the real money are the retailers."

Yesterday, you could buy 20 Grands Prix roses from Mr Richardson for £36. They would probably have cost less than one-tenth of that in Ecuador. In her research, Ms Maharaj estimated that the average mark-up from wholesaler to retailer was 300 per cent. Across London at Wild at Heart, 20 Grands Prix roses were selling for £150-£160, and anyone wanting to have a dozen ordinary red roses delivered for Valentine's would have to spend £100. At New Covent Garden, single roses were selling at 75p; in Notting Hill, packed in their purple box, they were selling briskly at £15 each. There is clearly no shortage of demand for the luxury of a fabulous bloom, beautifully presented.

"For this Valentine's Day a lot of people are coming to us for roses because we present them beautifully," says Kate Reeves of Wild at Heart. "A rose and gypsophila bouquet is so horrible, it's really downmarket. There is a move towards having a massive one flower as interiors are getting so much more minimal. People will spend around £100 on a bunch of flowers because they know they will get something stunning."

If it sounds a world away from the fields and greenhouses of South America or Africa, then perhaps the flowers' true message is finally getting through. "Only a fraction of the eventual price of flowers ever actually gets back to the workers," said Ms Maharaj. "Most of it goes to the dealers and the middlemen between the peasants and the people who buy the flowers."

There are encouraging signs, however, that things may be about to change. Mr Hoek and the International Labour Organisation are among negotiators persuading the international flower industry to introduce - and adhere to - a code of conduct that would give workers more protection and more rights.

Rolf Persson, president of Union Fleurs which represents the international trade in flowers and plants, said his members hoped to have the code in place before next Valentine's Day.

"Great strides have been made in recent years and we are still moving ahead," he says. "The big producers want to behave responsibly and realise that consumers will not buy their products unless they observe the highest standards."

He said talks on the code were well advanced but he denied certain countries were being used because of their attitudes to pesticides. "The problem is that the World Health Organisation has its list of acceptable pesticides, and the EU has its list, and the United States has its list," he says. "We plan to have a single list recognised by all and standards that can be monitored all the time."

Producers who live up to the code - with all its rights and responsibilities - will be able to use a logo on their packaging that will show consumers that the flowers inside were produced in a fair, safe and environmentally sound way. When that happens, hopefully within a year, you will be able to boycott the blooms without the logo and, with a clear conscience, give your loved one flowers that should not have damaged the health of a poor worker far away.