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Ecuadorian Roses: Child Labor on Flower Farms

Updated: May 21, 2020

Flowers bloom and become beautiful products. The same could be said of children. In order for a child to bloom into a beautiful adult, they need help growing. Nutrients are essential to shaping a perfect product. Ecuador is known for phenomenal flowers, specifically the roses they produce each year. How do they sell their product in mass quantity and continue quality? The answer is hidden behind the scenes. Within these companies, both large and small, are child workers. While many differentiate between child work and child labor, some Ecuadorian companies have found a new classification for the tasks completed by children on the farms -- ayudantes or helpers. Flower vendors in Ecuador classify these children as helpers, allowing the vendor to keep “child labor” low. The tasks and conditions are the same for children regardless of being classified as helpers or laborers. The main tasks performed by the children are picking coffee berries, pruning, weeding, and pesticide spraying. Hazardous conditions include the risk of exposure to toxic chemicals and the risk of snake bites and wild animal attacks. Many agencies fight to end child labor. Ecuador took to their constitution to show the world their effort to do something.

(Photo by Hideki Naito)

Photo by Hideki Naito

Local Community Against the World


Ecuador’s 1998 constitution protects a child from being exploited economically, but it was not until 2004 the country started to enforce this right of a child. International agencies advocating to monitor or even end child labor are the International Labor Organization (ILO), and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). This change within Ecuador is due to the threats from the United Nations to Ecuador regarding the atrocities against children in banana plantations and flower farms. While organizations and political establishments at home and abroad push toward the end of child labor, there are still groups that advocate to have children participating in the economy. These efforts come from local businesses, families, and children to continue their participation not only receive compensation for their work but to gain experiences they learn from their community. Those against child labor argue that it is beneficial to the economy and bad for the development of the child physically, mentally, and socially in contemporary Ecuador. While these regulations seem to be working on paper, there is data found to show something different -- if you read between the lines. The agencies leave out the voices from local mothers and others who have firsthand knowledge of on-the-ground experiences to take into consideration the cultural implications of ending these work practices.


Ecuadorian Mothers explain the cultural norm of children being raised by a community and not by one caregiver; children express the need to work in order to gain better education opportunities; and businesses along with researchers advocate how child work within the farms do not implicate the growth of the child physically or mentally. Research shows working helps children bloom socially. While there are many upsides, the government agencies do have some correctness in their advocacy. Not all farms are practicing safe working conditions but every sector of the economy is always going to have room for improvement. While some do not disagree with the efforts to create a better work environment, it is important to add every voice into the process in order to have a diverse discussion in the discourse. These agencies push western values into one generalization of childhood to create one universal definition pushed by Western non-governmental organizations, aid policies and international institutions.



Children’s Rights in Ecuador


While Western values try to universalize the human experience, it is important to consider the differences of children as political subjects versus political citizens. It is important to take note on local realities and how those may or may not correspond to western-generated discourses, values, and ideals that shape the image of childhood. A reform in 2002 abolished the minors' courts, which had condemned children to state orphanages for vagrancy or misdemeanors, and established a legal order based on the concept of rights. In 2007, a big change happened when the Ministry of Social Inclusion set up the Consultative Council for Children and Adolescents to channel their voices directly into government. (Photo by Hideki Naito)

These are the agencies that fight for children to have a voice as a political citizen to advocate for their well-being. The health of a child, socially and physically, are important markers to measure a child’s growth and the impact work has on a child. Agencies against children playing a role in the economy will say the work negatively impacts a child in each of these three markers but working is not all negative. Oftentimes, scholars write about how child work decreases their involvement in receiving an education. María Cristina Salazar takes a different perspective in her research by writing about work outside of school providing an alternate path to adult socialization and material welfare; something schools do not provide an opportunity to achieve [1].


Along with the social implication, the physical fitness of a child can be measured to say whether or not working is beneficial or negative. While the physical environment, such as access to recreational facilities and the walkability or safety of the neighborhood, is positively associated with youth physical activity participation levels, according to the social cognitive theory, the social environmental factors, such as parent or peer support, can also influence physical activity behavior. Specifically, children with active parents are more likely to be physically active compared to children whose parents are not [2]. This is important to keep in mind before a Western organization criticizes a mother for carrying babies on their back or having their children by their side at work. Viviana Zelizer, in her classic text on children’s economic roles and value in the early twentieth century US, writes about the change in opinion regarding a child’s role in society. The child was “economically useless” yet “socially priceless” in the early twentieth century, a complete change from the useful child in the nineteenth century [3]. The role of the child is constantly changing this is why it is important to allow every stakeholder to have a voice within the discourse.


International actors advertise the physical damage to a child from working. This research stems from a child being exposed to chemicals, long, physically draining work hours, and other dangerous factors. These are some of the extreme conditions of working practices. Although this is not a Western norm, it is stemming from the necessities the Western world has constructed through global capitalism. With culture in mind, along with the physical fitness findings, children are healthy in these conditions.


What does all of this have to do with roses? Every rose has thorns. The atrocities against workers, specifically children in the workplace need to end. But how can this happen? Each of the poor conditions can be attributed on farms that are not fair trade certified. But, as I said, not all flower farms are terrible for children. Fair trade certified flower farms are doing wonderful things for their workers: they crack down on contractors for hiring children as temporary workers in order to allow for proper pay, healthy work hours, and no exposure to toxic chemicals; they use their Fairtrade Premium for Hired Labor to add amenities to the workplace, such as day care, washing facilities, and even homes; and they have dental and health doctors on site to routinely check the workers. By companies being environmentally certified or Fair Trade certified it adds to the quality of life for not only the companies’ roses, but more importantly the workers who provide these beautiful flowers to the world.


[1] María Cristina Salazar, “Child Work and Education in Latin America,” The International Journal of Children’s Rights 6, no. 2 (1998): 155–77.


[2] Cheryl Howe , Sharon Casapulla, Jay Shubrook, Pablo Lopez, Mario Grijalva, and Darlene Berryman. “Regional Variations in Physical Fitness and Activity in Healthy and Overweight Ecuadorian Adolescents.” Children 5, no. 8 (August 2, 2018): 104.


[3] Viviana A. Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1994 [1985]).


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