by Justin Rood, ABC News
Roses are a symbol of romance to many people -- but not to Beatriz Fuentes.
Like many of the roughly 90,000 workers on giant South American flower plantations, Fuentes helps pick most of the roses that will be delivered to Americans this Valentine's Day.
But she says she is paid less than $50 for a six-day week of demanding labor, often under difficult -- some say illegal -- conditions, including contact with dangerous chemicals.
According to Nora Ferm of the Washington, D.C.-based International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), the typical South American flower picker is female, unmarried, has an elementary school education and three or more children. Since 2003, Ferm's group has backed an effort to organize South American flower pickers into unions and improve their working conditions.
Fuentes is to testify before Congress this morning about the working conditions she faces. Fuentes picks for a Colombian subsidiary of Dole Food Co., one of the world's largest fresh cut flower companies. She says the company requires prospective female employees at its South American farms to take pregnancy tests, doesn't protect its workers there from toxic chemicals and fails to address health problems created by their work.
Dole disputes her claims. Marty Ordman, a spokesman for the company, called Fuentes' claim about forced pregnancy tests "categorically false." In fact, he told ABC News, Dole accommodates pregnant employees by moving them into different positions that avoid contact with pesticides.
As for exposing workers to chemicals, Ordman said Dole's flower division "is recognized as a leader for sound environmental practices" and is working to reduce the use of "crop protection products" and find alternatives.
As for Dole workers' health care, Ordman said employees have access to on-site medical assistance, and the company has "state-of-the-art occupational health programs in place," which monitor and reduce "accidents and occupation-related illnesses."
Fuentes was invited to speak before Congress by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who is pushing legislation to bar the importation of goods produced under adverse working conditions which violate the laws of their country of origin.
The bill enjoys the support of at least one Republican; South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham has signed on as a co-sponsor.
Others, including the senior Republican on the subcommittee Dorgan chairs, don't agree. "This bill is deeply flawed," a spokesman for Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., told ABC News. While DeMint opposes sweatshops, the spokesman said he thinks Dorgan's bill "will not solve the problem."
Because the Colombian government bans employers from screening prospective workers for pregnancy, Dole's flowers would be banned under the proposed law if Fuentes' allegations are true, Dorgan's spokesman said.
The bill would tell American companies and workers that "they don't have to compete against those who cut corners at the cost of human health, dignity and even human lives," Dorgan has said.
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