By Nelson Bocanegra
CHIA, Colombia (Reuters) - As millions of Americans prepare to celebrate Valentine's Day with flowers, many of those blooms will be picked and packaged by Venezuelan migrants working for a minimum wage after fleeing violence and economic collapse in their South American homeland.
Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans, faced with growing shortages and hyperinflation at home, have fled to neighboring Colombia, the world's No. 2 flower grower.
The Andean country accounts for three-quarters of the flowers imported to the United States for Valentine's Day.
The exodus of Venezuelans includes engineers, doctors and other professionals. Many have found informal work harvesting coffee, serving in restaurants and driving Uber cars.
Now thousands have found seasonal work in the flower sector, which will send some 35,000 tonnes of produce to the United States for Feb. 14.
Angy Velasco, packing boxes of blooms at a farm in Chia north of the capital Bogota, said she fled to Colombia two months ago seeking work.
"I was forced to come because of the situation in my country," said Velasco, a former insurance worker. "It's been very strange because I've lived my whole life in Venezuela."
The 19-year-old earns the monthly minimum wage equivalent to about $276, far more than the $2.20 a month she would get exchanging the minimum wage in Venezuelan bolivars for dollars on the black market.
She and other Venezuelan workers at the greenhouse were cautious about speaking to Reuters for fear of being stigmatized by Colombians.
"I know Venezuelans want to return to our own country ... It's hard for all of us but we have to move forward," she said.
Colombia is the Latin American nation hardest-hit by the wave of emigration from its eastern neighbor.
The number of Venezuelans living in Colombia jumped 62 percent in the second half of 2017 to more than 550,000, the Colombian migration authority said last month. Less than one-fourth of those people have visas.
Most enter across the porous 2,219 km (1,379-mile) border between the two countries.
"This year there are a large number of Venezuelans who have arrived looking for work," said Dayana Rodriguez, a Colombian who supervises cutting and packing of flowers at Rio Frio, the flower farm where Velasco found work. "Here, we'll give them opportunities as long as they meet company requirements."
Many in Colombia feel they owe Venezuelans a debt. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians moved to Venezuela in the 1980s and 1990s, fleeing violent conflict in their country and attracted by jobs in the OPEC country's then-booming oil sector.
Venezuelan migrants have faced some violence in border towns where some residents worry about competition for jobs and rising theft. However, Colombia's government has insisted it has a responsibility to welcome them.
The foreign ministry said it was worried about abuse of Venezuelans in Colombia and that last week alone close to 600 businesses were fined for employing Venezuelans at below minimum wage.
"We can't ever forget the generosity of that country with Colombians," Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin said. "There are 4 million Colombians or children of Colombians in Venezuela, so we have to be big-hearted."
Despite the deepening crisis and his weak approval ratings, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is favored to win re-election on April 22, thanks in part to the divided and weak opposition.
Western governments accuse Maduro's government of violating political and human rights in Venezuela and have imposed economic sanctions. Maduro says he is fighting a U.S.-led conspiracy to end socialism in Latin America, hobble Venezuela's economy and steal its oil wealth.
With the crisis worsening, there is no end in sign to the tide of migrants.
Colombian Agriculture Minister Juan Guillermo Zuluaga said the government was working to identify how many Venezuelans were working in the agricultural sector. Flowers and some other produce are harvested year round but workers rotate between crops depending on the season.
"It's a humanitarian gesture to receive them. We would like to provide them with more, but we also have to attend to our own reality," said Zuluaga.
(Reporting by Nelson Bocanegra; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Helen Murphy, Daniel Flynn and David Gregorio)