A woman cuts roses in a greenhouse in Tabio, in the Colombian department of Cundinamarca, on February 1, 2018
Rubiela Mendez and William Perez had never felt the humid cold of the Sabana de Bogotá. They tell him as they assemble bouquets of twelve roses in a warehouse more than 500 kilometers from his native Cúcuta, on the depressed border with Venezuela.
Until there were the flower-growers in search of labor before the high demand for export on Valentine’s Day, and what they found were desperate crowds.
„The situation in Cúcuta is very difficult, nobody wants to go back there because there is no work, but I have to go back because I have my daughter there,“ says this impeccably made-up 26-year-old woman, who had never separated from her four-year-old Years and a half.
In a country with unemployment figures below 10% in the last five years, that city closed 2017 with a rate of 15.9%. According to Méndez, in the midst of unemployment, Venezuelans who arrive by the thousands can charge up to half for the same work.
The activity is frenetic in this huge plant located in the middle of greenhouses in Tabio, in the center of Colombia, the second world exporter of flowers behind Holland, and the main one to the United States market.
After the roses are cut, a strict cold chain is maintained, so that the workers who swarm sort, assemble bouquets and pack to the rhythm of bachata and reggaeton at less than 10 degrees.
Rubiela is one of them. After he lost his job in a restaurant where he earned 20,000 pesos a day (about seven dollars), he dedicated himself to smuggling with fuel until he could change the gasoline for the petals.
– Despair and hunger –
The company Sunshine Bouquet opened an escape tunnel to the crisis in the largest Colombian city on the common border of more than 2,200 kilometers.
A worker prepares roses for packaging in a flower plantation in Tabio, in the Colombian department of Cundinamarca, on February 1, 2018
After Christmas, Valentine’s Day is the celebration in which Americans spend more money, and the month before Valentine’s Day, on February 14, is the highest peak of the year for Colombian flower growers, who satisfy 74% of that demand.
A lucrative sector that moved 1,306 million dollars between January and November.
For this season, Sunshine Bouquet started a recruitment plan in the border area with the expectation of hiring Venezuelan migrants, but they found an enormous need among the people of Cucuta.
In mid-January they transported the chosen 600 in 14 buses – 80% of them recently returned Colombians – to install them in three farms in the Sabana de Bogotá, where they adapted camps and containers with heating and hot water. They receive the minimum wage, about 300 dollars, plus accommodation and food.
In Cúcuta there is „a very needy population, suffering, but with a lot of desire to work“, explained Felipe Gómez, general manager of the company.
A worker selects roses in a plantation in Tabio, in the Colombian department of Cundinamarca, on February 1, 2018
With the help of the Foreign Ministry, they gathered 1,200 people at the General Santander stadium in Cúcuta at the end of last year.
William ran with luck. He was one of the chosen ones. This Colombian of 24 years had four months without finding a job when he heard about the call. For seven years he lived in Venezuela, but the crisis forced him to return.
There he experienced „the anxiety, that terrible despair“ of feeling afraid of insecurity and not getting food, tells AFP.
– Migratory pressure –
The Venezuelan crisis reversed the historical trend of the migratory flow.
Pushed by the scarcity of basic goods, insecurity and hyperinflation, more than 550,000 Venezuelans are in Colombia on a regular or irregular basis, the Colombian immigration authority said in January, which projects that the figure will surpass one million by mid-year.
They are joined by Colombians who have been forced to return.
Unemployment „is concentrated in Cúcuta because it is the border area that receives this migratory pressure“, which accentuates a tendency towards informality, explains Iván Daniel Jaramillo, of the Labor Observatory of the Universidad del Rosario.
Seasonal work is not ideal, he says. But it has become a lifeline for the 600 elected.
There is no device ready for them to return to Cúcuta. In fact, most aspire to be part of the 20% of temporary workers who get hooked on the company after Valentine’s Day, continue in the sector of flowers in the savanna or look for opportunities in the interior of the country.
„If we do not continue, I would like to get to Bogotá and start making my life there,“ says Pérez. The flowers make him smile.