Fair Labor, Equal Rights and Alta Gracia
By: Danielle Meinert
Women’s rights are commonly thought to include issues like reproductive justice, ending sexual assault, and stopping slut-shaming. However, issues within the developing world, like workers’ rights, are just as vital. Alta Gracia is the first living-wage college-logo garment factory in the Caribbean. Most garment factories could be described as “sweatshops,” but Alta Gracia focuses on workers’ rights. The company pays its employees three times the local minimum wage (about $3 an hour instead of $1), allowing them to afford necessities like three healthy daily meals, shelter, and education within a much lower cost of living than in the United States. Most of the factory’s workers are women, empowering many to independently provide for their families. Two workers from the Dominican company visited the University of Georgia on Monday, Sept. 8 to share their stories and encourage President Jere Morehead and the University Bookstore to stock more Alta Gracia clothing. The bookstore sells some Alta Gracia garments in the back of the store, but lacks a wide variety of styles and sizes; it does not display information about the company’s mission and successes.
Yenny Peréz and Eduvirgen Castillo live in the Dominican Republic and work for Alta Gracia. At the event, they spoke on the factory’s conditions compared to their past jobs with a different, now-closed garment factory called BJ&B. Through a Spanish-to-English interpreter, Peréz said that the difference was “like heaven and earth.” She reported that some women who worked at BJ&B were pregnant at that time, and often had miscarriages on the job because of unsafe working conditions and strict supervisors. Those who asked to use the restroom more than once every four hours were harassed, sexually assaulted, or fired. Castillo noted that on BJ&B’s wage, she would skip meals all day just so she could provide one meal for her children.
Alta Gracia rejects those conditions. As the only college-logo apparel company that pays its workers a true living wage for the cost of living in the Caribbean, it creates a safe workplace with fair hours, ergonomic seating, and air conditioning. Alta Gracia is verified weekly by the independent Worker Rights Consortium, which investigates working conditions in global factories. According to Peréz and Castillo, it allows employees a democratic voice on the job, and challenges expectations about garment factories in developing countries. They insisted that this is only possible because of unionization efforts by BJ&B’s former workers, most of whom were women.
Compared to their mistreatment at BJ&B, workers are treated with respect; they are allowed to leave work for arranged doctor’s appointments and can stand up to use the restroom or take a break at any time. They work nine hour shifts instead of twelve to seventeen. Employees are allowed to converse with each other without consequences, and encouraging these basic human rights have improved productivity and morale. Women who are nursing or pregnant even have flexibility to fulfill their needs on the job. Peréz and Castillo both noted how their city is more economically active because of the factory’s wages for community members, and that their working lives have improved the lives of their families as well. The women are paid enough to transform themselves and their community, but many also earn enough money to pursue an education at night – an immeasurable benefit to achieve their goals outside the context of their day job.
Over 994 retailers and universities in the United States stock Alta Gracia apparel, including the University of Florida and the University of Alabama bookstores. Because most bookstores tend to stock sweatshop brands like Nike and Adidas, student activists like those at the University of Georgia are seeking to educate administrators and bookstore managers. The UGA activist group, called the Coalition of Bulldogs for Fair Labor, hopes that the bookstore will source at least one-third of its apparel from Alta Gracia. They also advocate affiliating UGA with the Worker Rights Consortium.
So far, the group has met with the president’s assistant and the bookstore manager to educate and encourage them to meet the Coalition’s goals. They have begun coordinating letter drops in the Administration Building to expedite the process. Based on the success of this initiative, the Coalition of Bulldogs for Fair Labor will use other advocacy tactics. Melissa Woodbridge, a fourth year and leader of the Coalition and President of Amnesty International at UGA, says, “The reason that we want the UGA Bookstore to carry more Alta Gracia is to signal to the larger garment industry that it’s a viable business model to treat your workers like humans, so it would be a powerful statement for the President himself to be involved in the effort.”
Alta Gracia aims to transform its employees’ lives while seeking local economic development so that women in the Dominican Republic are no longer mistreated or abused on the job. With clothing priced at or below the competition, the fair labor company still turns a profit. Alta Gracia serves as a model for human rights beyond its clothing; it reshapes lives and communities.
“For us, as workers, it’s just really important to have this international support,” Peréz said, “And it’s just so motivating to see students be part of this global fight and want to be part of this movement to change things”
If you would like to get involved with the Coalition of Bulldogs for Fair Labor, you can contact Amnesty International at UGA by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article will appear in “The Chapel Bell, A Positive Press Publication at UGA”