Alta Gracia Factory in the Dominican Republic Defies Sweatshop Category

In “Factory Defies Sweatshop Label, but Can It Thrive?” the New York Times focuses on an unusual garment factory—a pioneer in the developing world because it pays a “living wage.” According to the article, this factory pays three times the average pay of the Dominican Republic’s apparel workers—based on a study done by a workers’ rights group that calculated the living costs for a family of four in the country. Minimum wages are around 85 cents in the Dominican Republic the Alta Gracia factory pays $2.83 an hour. Here are excerpts with a link to the full article below:

The factory is a high-minded experiment, a response to appeals from myriad university officials and student activists that the garment industry stop using poverty-wage sweatshops. It has 120 employees and is owned by Knights Apparel, a privately held company based in Spartanburg, S.C., that is the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company.

For Knights, the factory is a risky proposition, even though it already has orders to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for bookstores at 400 American universities. The question is whether students, alumni and sports fans will be willing to pay $18 for the factory’s T-shirts — the same as premium brands like Nike and Adidas—to sustain the plant and its generous wages. Joseph Bozich, the C.E.O. of Knights, is optimistic. “We’re hoping to prove that doing good can be good business, that they’re not mutually exclusive,” he says. [. . .] Mr. Bozich says the plant’s T-shirts and sweats should command a premium because the company uses high-quality fabric, design and printing.

In the factory’s previous incarnation, a Korean-owned company, BJ&B, made baseball caps for Nike and Reebok before shutting it in 2007 and moving the operation to lower-wage countries. Today, the reborn factory is producing under a new label, Alta Gracia, named after this poverty-ridden town as well as the Virgin of Altagracia, revered as protector of the Dominicans. (Alta gracia translates to “exalted grace.”)

“This sometimes seems too good to be true,” says Jim Wilkerson, Duke University’s director of licensing and a leader of American universities’ fair-labor movement. He said a few other apparel companies have tried to improve working conditions, like School House, which was founded by a 25-year-old Duke graduate and uses a factory in Sri Lanka. Worker advocates applaud these efforts, but many say Alta Gracia has gone further than others by embracing higher wages and unionization. A living wage is generally defined as the amount of money needed to adequately feed and shelter a family. “What really counts is not what happens with this factory over the next six months,” Mr. Wilkerson says. “It’s what happens six years or 10 years from now. We want badly for this to live on.”

Santa Castillo agrees. She and many co-workers toiled at other factories for the minimum wage, currently $147 a month in this country’s free-trade zones, where most apparel factories are located. That amount, worker after worker lamented in interviews for this article, falls woefully short of supporting a family. [. . .] While some critics view the living wage as do-gooder mumbo-jumbo, Ms. Castillo views it as a godsend. In her years earning the minimum wage, she said she felt stuck on a treadmill — never able to advance, often borrowing to buy necessities. “A lot of times there was only enough for my kids, and I’d go to bed hungry,” she says. “But now I have money to buy meat, oatmeal and milk.” With higher wages, she says, her family can move up in the world. She is now able to borrow $1,000 to begin building her future home and feels able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a minister at her local evangelical church.

[The article continues to tell the beautiful story behind Mr. Bozich’s groundbreaking idea. It includes a wonderful video about the company and its workers.]

Please read full article at]

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