FACATATIVA, Colombia — In her hilltop shanty, Gloria Isabel Ramirez had rice and beans and potatoes for dinner and nothing else.
But she was not complaining.
Some nights she has nothing for herself and her 12-year-old son, so she pleads with neighbors for food or money to buy food.
And sometimes they go hungry in their two-room home, cobbled out of worn wooden planks that let the winds whip through. A few wobbly planks lead up to the doorway.
Since leaving her village at age 14 to work in the flower houses that sprawl in the lush green valley not far from Bogota, she has tried to get by without complaining.
But that hasn't been easy for the small, chatty flower worker. The years have taken their toll.
Her hands are like stones from working so hard for the last 24 years, harder than others cutting flowers because she thought she would be rewarded—a hope that never panned out. She can barely grip anything firmly. They ache constantly as do her shoulders and back.
The $10-a-day she earns working seven days a week is just enough for her small family, so they cling to their shack at the end of footpath up a steep grassy hill. The town's poorest neighborhood, it is called the Creche, as in the Bible.
Her son Sebastian has a serious heart condition, but the Bogota hospital, where she takes him, has told her they couldn't care for him because the flower company she works for hasn't paid its health care bills lately.
Two years ago, the flower company, where she had worked for six years, fired her because she couldn't work as fast as the others. Her hands were crippling her. She sought help from a new union that was trying to organize the flower workers.
There are several “real and independent” unions for the flower workers, said Biatriz Fuentes, a veteran union organizer here, who helped Ramirez. Of the 18,000 flower workers in the area, only about 1 percent belong to such unions, Fuentes added.
The majority of the flower workers, who are mostly women and single parents, work for company unions, or sub-contractors, not unions that stand up for workers' rights, explained Aide Silva, a leader of Untraflores, another union, which has only 80 members, down from more than 2,500 a decade ago.
Patrica Garcia, an organizer for Untraflores, despairs at the challenges facing her.
“We have to begin all over again,” she said. “These companies tell the people that unions are bad for companies. They point their fingers at us and say the big companies went out of business because of the unions.”
Labor experts add that an increasing number of flower workers are day laborers, a situation which gives them few job protections and barely any benefits.
The workers need protections, union officials say, because the growers have stepped up their quotas and sometimes do not pay overtime. Meanwhile, wages have not gone up, they add. “Today, one worker is doing what three workers did a few years ago,” said Silva.
Come holiday time in the U.S., the largest customer for Colombia's flowers, workers can face 20-hour workloads, taking two-hour breaks only between their shifts, Silva said.
But ASCOFLORES, a trade group that represents the largest flower companies and exporters, doesn't agree with its critics.
It says that industry-wide about 13 percent of the flower industry's workers belong to unions, as compared to the 4 percent unionization rate for all of Colombia's workers, according to an e-mail from an association official. Likewise, 100 percent of the industry's workers get social security benefits. The association official conceded that the majority of the workers hired by its members receive only the minimum wage, but added these wages cannot be compared to U.S. workers' wages.
While Colombia's flower companies boast that their products were the first to enter the U.S. in May 2012 under the new Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia, the flower workers are hardly celebrating.
"Things have only gotten worse in the last year," said Silva of Untraflores.
Not all of the flower workers struggles have been defeats, however.
The lawyer for the farm workers union that Ramirez approached sued the flower company for firing her. “Thanks to God, I won the lawsuit and I got my job back two months later,” she said.
She went back to her job, assigned to working only eight hours a day because of her medical problem, instead of the normal 10 hour shift.
Yet that isn't always the case.
“If you cannot meet the goal of cutting flowers that the company sets, then you have to stay as long it takes. And that can take until seven or eight at night,” she said.
Ever since she returned to the job, few of the several hundred workers at her company talk to her. She thinks that is because they don´t want to be identified with someone who made trouble for the company.
She thinks they are also jealous because she is the only one with a union contract, while they have much weaker protections.
She hopes now to win a pension because of her disability. None of the three surgeries she has undergone has resolved her problems. If she gets the pension, however, that will mean earning half her current salary.
Yet she is willing to live on even less if it means leaving the flower houses.
“I will just have to get by," she said.