Dominican factory vows to never be a sweatshop

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Alta Gracia, which aims to ‘treat workers decently’ and pay a living wage, is a far cry from the grueling conditions many of the workers previously experienced. Read the full article—“’Dignity and respect’: Dominican factory vows to never be a sweatshop”—at The Guardian.

Factory worker Aracelis Upia sings to herself as she sews a blue collar on to a T-shirt soon to be sold at a US college bookstore. Another chats with a colleague at the water cooler. Large fans circulate cool air throughout the factory while merengue music blares from a loudspeaker.

The clothing industry is globally notorious for substandard working conditions and meager wages. But Alta Gracia, a US-owned garment factory in the Dominican Republic, produces T-shirts and sweatshirts for about 600 US colleges with the “living wage” and values of “dignity and respect” at its core. And it vows never to become a sweatshop.

It hasn’t always been easy.

The factory was founded in 2010 when Knights Apparel, a leading supplier of college-logo sportswear joined forces with the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), a labor rights not-for-profit, with the backing of socially conscious US students and Dominican unions.

Scott Nova, executive director of WRC, believes Alta Gracia is “the only apparel factory in the global south to pay a living wage”. His organization certifies this through regular monitoring.

The minimum wage in free-trade zones in the Dominican Republic is 10,000 pesos, or $200, a month. An Alta Gracia worker earns about $500, over 2.5 times that amount.

Additional benefits go far and beyond wages. Workers can freely unionize, have access to medical insurance and get a minimum of 14 paid vacation days.

Despite the business’s cyclical nature, Alta Gracia workers are employed throughout the year, unlike many garment factories that dispense with their temporary workers for weeks or months at a time. [. . .]

“I used to live here,” says Patricia, 33, one of Alta Gracia’s most loyal workers, as she shows me the remains of a wooden shack off a muddy trail with no kitchen or running water. “We used to wash with buckets of water,” she says.

She now shows off her gated two-bedroom home across the road and describes her plans to put tiling on the walls of her brand-new bathroom. Patricia’s sister died unexpectedly, leaving her and her husband in charge of her three children. “I went from having one child to having four. If it weren’t for Alta Gracia, I don’t know what I would have done,” she says.

Her first pay stub from 2010 still sits in a frame on a coffee table in her living room. Worker upon worker talks of their initial skepticism before their first paycheck arrived. “I couldn’t believe this. It was like a dream come true,” she says. [. . .]

[. . .] But however noble the cause, Alta Gracia has yet to prove its sustainability as a business.

The new year got off to a shaky start when the withdrawal of an investor suspended factory production for five days. The temporary closure initially left workers scrambling to account for expenses made over the Christmas holiday but they were eventually paid.

Since securing an important financial commitment from Barry Davison, the founder of Yellowcreek Partners, Chris Morocco – who took over as CEO in April 2018 – is confident the company will be profitable by the end of 2019.

Since the takeover in 2018 by AG Triada and TripleStone Partners, Alta Gracia has signed a distribution agreement with Fanatics, a major online sportswear retailer.

The deal includes producing and marketing sports apparel for all the Major League Baseball (MLB) teams in time for the next season that kicks off in spring 2019 and for all National Football League (NFL) teams in the fall.

As Alta Gracia’s parent company, Knights Apparel had already laid the foundation for this expansion into the sports world beyond college-logo clothing by teaming up with the Dallas Cowboys, the US’s most valuable sports franchise.

Morocco plans to build on Alta Gracia’s solid relationship with more than 400 Barnes & Noble College bookstores, their main distribution platform, and to take things to the next level through online distribution.

He is confident his socially conscious millennial and – the younger i-Gen – customer base will help him meet his goal to increase revenues and gross profit margins in 2019. They appreciate not only “how the product makes them look and feels, but also what they might be doing for others”.

Barnes & Noble College has stood behind Alta Gracia since the company’s inception.

“From the beginning this was a very important project for us. Since then we have never wavered,” says Joel Friedman, vice-president of Barnes & Noble College. The company even gave Alta Gracia the job of producing their most popular T-shirt.

But Friedman warns: “People aren’t going to buy just for the social piece. The product has to be right.” [. . .]

[Photo above by Milli Legrain.]

For full article, see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/14/alta-gracia-garment-factory-dominican-republic-living-wage

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