Roses: Symbols of Romance or of Suffering?

It’s Valentine’s Day. The shelves are crammed with vibrant bouquets of red roses and boxes of dainty heart-shaped chocolates and they’re being sold in droves. For many, these are the ultimate symbols of romance- but are they really? Are your Valentine’s gifts slave-free?

Many people think that slavery is a horrific thing of the past. However, all over the world today, modern slavery is rife. The products of forced labour and appalling working conditions are in our cupboards and on our plates.

It is estimated that over 250 million roses are produced for this day of love and according to the NRF, people in the USA alone planned on spending $1.9 billion on flowers this Valentine’s day. We create this demand and other people in all corners of the world have to pay. The flower industry is fuelled by forced labour. For example, Colombia is one of the world’s leading producers of flowers- especially roses. There have been reports of extremely low pay, long working hours and abuse of workers. Many suffer from health problems due to the harrowing hours and chemicals used and women work in exploitative conditions.

In the lead up to Valentine’s day, the demand for flowers rapidly increases, therefore, they need more workers- or they need to squeeze more hours out of the workers they already have. In India, the IJM rescued four boys from a rose farm where they were held as slaves. They had to pick and water thousands of roses and were beaten if they made mistakes. How can we allow this suffering to go on for the sake of romantic gestures? If a young child picks roses until their fingers bleed, how can gifting those roses be an expression of love?

How many of you love chocolate? Smooth, silky, slave-made chocolate. It’s a very popular Valentine’s gift and it can contain not one, but two products of slavery. Cocoa and palm oil. Every day, millions of children in the Ivory Coast, for example, harvest cocoa using dangerous methods and machinery. This taxing work is done by children who have probably never even tasted chocolate. These children may have also been trafficked and taken from their families who they may never see again.

The palm oil industry isn’t just driven by slavery but also accused of destroying rainforests and wildlife. Indigenous people are forced off their land to make way for palm oil production and children harvest and carry heavy loads of palm fruit while hunched over and exhausted. Big brands like Hershey and Nestle have been accused of using unethically sourced ingredients in their chocolate with roots in child labour and slavery. Is a moment of pleasure really worth the agony of other human beings?

Recently, I heard about this issue and I was shocked when I realised the extent of this problem. It’s atrocious yet so few people know about the plague of modern slavery on our world. Therefore, the purpose of this post was to raise awareness. I’m not saying that you should never sniff a rose or eat chocolate ever again. That will not solve this problem and not all roses and chocolate boxes are the products of slavery. I’m saying that we should put more thought into the things we buy and we should try to make more ethical choices- now that I know about it, I already am. We need to raise awareness and we need to let the world know that this is not okay. Taking away some people’s rights so others can enjoy luxuries is not okay and we will not stand by it. We should acknowledge the effect that the demand we create has on our fellow human beings. Is a bouquet of roses necessary to convey your love? Why isn’t a kind gesture or some quality time spent with loved ones not enough?

What can you do? Apart from raising awareness, the best thing to do is to buy ethically sourced Valentine’s gifts. You could buy locally grown roses or grow and cut your own, also, you could buy Fairtrade. For example, Arena is a UK seller of Fairtrade flowers. Furthermore, here is a list of slave-free chocolate brands that you could look into. Every small action makes a difference but we still have a long way to go to eradicate slavery once and for all.

How many broken hearts are behind this Valentine’s day?

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