SANTO DOMINGO, May 16, 2011 (IPS) – Two years ago, Knights Apparel, based in the U.S. state of South Carolina, decided to lead the race to the top by opening a factory that not only paid its employees a living wage but guaranteed their rights to a union.
Taking over a factory that had moved to a cheaper location, Knights Apparel chose to work with the Worker Rights Consortium, a monitoring agency funded by participating universities. Together, they designed a model to ensure that clothing produced there be certified as “not produced under sweatshop conditions”.
Rather than take local sources for guidance, the WRC did its own exacting study on what constituted a living wage in the Dominican Republic. The study found that a living wage for a family was 497 dollars a month or 2.93 dollars an hour, whereas the allowable minimum wage in the Free Trade Zones is just 147.95 dollars per month (84 cents per hour).
Knights Apparel agreed to meet this standard. As a result, the company has garnered free publicity and ongoing marketing support from activist groups around the world. Alta Gracia garments include a tag with a picture of one of the workers, attesting to the fair wages and good working conditions.
Alta Gracia-made logo clothing is now available at over 350 university campuses. While more expensive than generic brands, it is less expensive than some competitors such as Reebok and Nike.
All the factory floor workers at Alta Gracia are paid the same wage- 527 dollars a month, or 333 percent of the legal minimum wage. By agreement with the union, work is four days a week, from seven in the morning until five at night, and Fridays from seven a.m. until noon. There is a half hour morning break and one hour for lunch.
In the office off the factory floor, Sara Adler-Milstein, the local WRC representative, translates on a web cam conference call between a student group assembled at the University of Birmingham, UK, Teresa Cheng from United Students against Sweatshops in the United States, and two union representatives from the Alta Gracia factory.
The employees are allowed to leave their posts on the factory floor to answer questions from the students since this call may well result in increased orders for the factory.
“Ten years ago, students in U.S. universities staged protests to force their universities to affiliate with the WRC,” Cheng said. “This is the first time that we at USAS have actually been able to support a factory, which is Alta Gracia, because it is the only union which meets our standards for non-sweatshops.”
Maritza Vargas, a union representative, told the students a bit of her story. “My life has changed completely since I started to work here at Alta Gracia. Before, I worked far away and boarded my children. I could barely afford the cost of food and I could only pay for school for one child. Now all of my children live with me and I have money not only for their education but for continuing my own as well. “
“This is true not just for me but for all of the workers here at AltaGracia,” she added.
“Here in the DR we have great labour laws, but the difference between what the law says and what happens is huge,” Vargas said. “When workers go to the government with violations, they often turn their back on us. There is no accountability, the owners can leave the country, close the factory, without paying the workers the severance that is due. It is also common when unions form here for the management to fire all of the workers who join. “
“Alta Gracia has changed the entire union movement here in the Dominican Republic because of the living wage and the dignified treatment which we are receiving here,” she said. “This has given hope to all the other unions, that they too can achieve these goals.”
Pablo de Jesus spoke of his experiences in other factories and the realities of unionising in the Dominican Republic. “The salaries were very low and they used to speak to us with bad language, saying things like ‘You are useless. You are not working hard enough.’ Also we suffered from physical mistreatment. They would not let us take bathroom breaks when we needed them.”
Adler-Milstein has been investigating workers’ complaints at another local factory here in the Dominican Republic, where the apparel company Gildan Dortex is accused of harassing and firing union organisers and then forming a management-based “yellow” union.
She says that visiting Alta Gracia is the highlight of her week.
“It has been exciting to see something that is so life-changing for the workers and for the managers as well. Compared to other factories, the biggest changes that you see is when the workers go home, since they are happy, they are living in much better conditions, they have health insurance,” she said.
“There are less noticeable things here such as the investment in ergonomic chairs here so that their backs do not hurt,” she added. “They don’t have to fear what they are going to have to give up in order to put a meal on the table.”
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