02/13/2012 09:59 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2012

The Women Behind Your Valentine's Day Bouquet

This month, your heart is supposed to be throbbing with love -- the romantic kind, full of chocolate and flowers. But mine is aching. Because I know that Valentine's Day ushers in a crushingly difficult time for the women who produce, pick, and package those flowers. It's hard to see our bursting expressions of love breaking the backs of women who are overworked, undervalued, and grossly mistreated.

You may not have known who was behind your Valentine's Day bouquet, but it's these exploited women. They live in Colombia and Ecuador, the two largest exporters of flowers to the U.S., and labor inside greenhouses fumigated with pesticides and insecticides, many of which are considered illegal and carcinogenic in the U.S. and Europe.

Work is hard for these women, to say the least. They are often subjected to arbitrary pregnancy tests (pregnant women are summarily fired), suffer sexual harassment, and face horrific health risks due to pesticide abuse. It is hard to imagine that your lovely roses are responsible for disturbingly high rates of miscarriage, birth defects, skin conditions, and breathing problems for the women who create them.

Yes, human suffering grows tall and strong alongside our flawless flowers.

One third of women in this industry are single mothers, and all of these women earn less than half of what it costs to meet the basic human needs of their families. Contract and temporary work is the norm, leaving women endlessly worried about making enough money to feed their children.

And Valentine's Day just makes this reality even worse. Our overwhelming desire for holiday bouquets prompts flower companies to set nearly impossible quotas, requiring women to work up to 18 hours each day, under the threat of termination if production requirements aren't met.

How can this be? Though there are laws to inhibit the rampant abuse of women in the flower industry, companies are largely unregulated, and internal advocacy attempts by workers have been silenced.

But as a critical part of this $40 billion per year industry, we have the power to make a difference. We're the ones that expect Valentine's Day roses, Mother's Day mums, and birthday bouquets to brighten up our desks. Let's demand that these flowers come free of harmful chemicals and are produced in a workplace with fair and humane conditions.

So here's what you can do now: this Valentine's Day, insist that your loved ones check the flowers' certification before buying you a bundle of blooms. Though there are dozens of labels purporting to indicate fair labor and sustainable environmental practices, don't be fooled. Flowers labeled "fair trade" are often anything but, and the "Florverde" certification is little more than a publicity stunt. You can more readily rely on the Veriflora label and Fair Flowers Fair Plants (FFP) certification; the production of flowers with this latter label is reviewed closely by non-governmental agencies and trade unions. And of course, you can buy flowers from your local farmer's market, though you'll have to make do without roses because they're not in season.

Remember -- women working in the flower industry need their jobs, so boycotting their flowers entirely isn't the solution. Support the labels that provide fairer labor standards, choose your flowers wisely, and tell others to do the same.

I can't think of a better way to show some love this Valentine's Day.