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Your Town Now: Students Lobby for Sweatshop-Free Options


 

UI student William Goldberg is watching out for workers rights.

The name Alta Gracia means “high grace.” In the Dominican Republic, the Virgin of Altagracia is the protector of her people. Her name is invoked tenderly and with reverence by those seeking blessing on their land and on the many hands that help cultivate it, particularly in the poverty-stricken community named for her. Villa Altagracia is a small village about an hour’s drive from the capital city, Santo Domingo, in the easternmost part of the Dominican Republic. Villa Altagracia and surrounding villages have experienced high unemployment and, as a result, are awash in poverty.

In the United States, Alta Gracia has become synonymous with fair trade. The clothing line Alta Gracia was launched in 2009 by Knights Apparel, the largest distributor of clothing and apparel to colleges and universities. It is among the few apparel companies in the world that pays a living wage to the workers who make its clothing.

The Worker Rights Consortium, an independent watchdog group, determined the living wage standard for free trade zone apparel workers in the Dominican Republic by performing a comprehensive market-based analysis. The WRC determined that the Dominican minimum wage, expressed in US dollars, is $0.84 an hour and the living wage is $2.83 an hour.

Long before the death of Trayvon Martin equated the wearing of sweatshirts, particularly hoodies, with a statement of social justice, college students across the country saw the political power of their clothing. The anti-sweatshop movement has been embraced by undergraduates since the 1990s, when co-eds began protesting the support of companies linked to sweatshops by their universities. Today, groups like United Students Against Sweatshops, continue to boycott companies that employ the use of sweatshop laborers. The USAS is entirely organized by college students and other youth. Its mission is to plan strategic student-labor solidarity campaigns against sweatshops, which the organization defines broadly. It considers all struggles against the daily abuses of the global economic system to be a struggle against sweatshops.

Student activists on the University of Iowa campus have embraced the anti-sweatshop movement by creating a campus-wide initiative to raise awareness of Alta Gracia. The movement, led by members of the student groups Students Abolishing Slavery, Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, Young Democrats and Amnesty International, has educated UI students about Alta Gracia, sent out emails, made announcements about the products in classes and distributed flyers about the company.

Christina Carberry, president of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance believes that women are disproportionately affected by the absence of a living wage because they are trying to support their families.

Christina Carberry, a senior at the UI and president of the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, said she was drawn to the cause because of the way the garment industry has historically mistreated its primarily female workforce.

“Women are disproportionately affected by the absence of a living wage because they are trying to support their families,” Carberry said.

William Goldberg is a junior and a board member of Students Abolishing Slavery.

“We speak out against modern-day slavery of any kind whether it is sexual, forced labor, wage slavery or another kind,” Goldberg said. “And we aren’t just in support of Alta Gracia. We support any company that is truly fair trade and truly provides a living wage.”

Part of student efforts to raise awareness about the atrocities of the garment industry has included a campaign to increase the amount of Alta Gracia merchandise available in the campus bookstore. Alta Gracia apparel is available at the UI campus bookstore and on the store’s website the merchandise is listed under its own heading, along with other merchandise suppliers, and buyers are encouraged to “make a difference with their Iowa pride.” But Goldberg and Carberry would like to see more of a growth in Alta Gracia sales at the UI bookstore and increased promotion of the product. Earlier this year members of the UI student organizations mentioned above filed a petition with the campus bookstore’s management asking for its increased support of Alta Gracia by purchasing $300,000 in merchandise wholesale, or 30 percent of the store’s merchandise.

“In the past, students would go there and have to ask about Alta Gracia merchandise because they didn’t see it in the store,” Goldberg said. “We want there to be more prominent signage and better placement of the product. We know people will support this product, but they have to be able to find it.”

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In response to student requests, the bookstore has crafted an inventory, marketing and merchandising plan to support a sales goal of $100,000 of Alta Gracia during the fiscal year beginning this July 1, and placed an order from their fall line, which begins shipping on August 1. The store’s management has also agreed to track sales and inventory levels. Re-orders will be placed and new products will be introduced as required in support of this sales goal.

Goldberg said students want to see Alta Gracia get the same promotion as less labor-friendly companies like Nike. In the 1990s Nike was criticized for the conditions of its factories. Many universities are paid licensing fees by brands like Nike for the right to use their names, logos and mascots on the clothing they produce. Nike and its competitors are widely accused of continuing to employ workers in Asian sweatshops.

The University of Iowa has a Code of Conduct that requires licenses to “engage in business practices that effect positive change.” The Code also explicitly states that there cannot be benefit from “exploitation of U.S. or international labor” (Section 1).

“We don’t know if Nike still purchases items from factories that abuse their workers, but we know that Alta Gracia doesn’t,” Goldberg said. “We may not be able to prove that Nike is doing something wrong, but we can prove that Alta Gracia is doing something right, so why not stick with the company we know isn’t doing anything bad and promotes a true living wage?”

Alta Gracia pays its workers $510 a month. That equates to a 340 percent increase to the legal minimum wage of $150 per month in the Dominican Republic. The ripple effect of employees receiving a living wage is expansive. According to Taber, with their income workers can make improvements to their homes, which in turn helps the construction industry; they can buy computers for their children and send them to school; they can access clean drinking water; and they can contribute to the overall betterment of their community.

Alta Gracia also prides itself on its safe work environment and welcomes unrestricted monitoring of its factory by an independent watchdog group, The Worker Rights Consortium.

In June 2010 Alta Gracia established a union and elected leaders. The union and management have a joint health committee, and they meet often to discussion production, employee morale and facility conditions. The union conducts vaccination programs and HIV prevention workshops. All with the support and encouragement of management.

“What makes Alta Gracia so unique is that we aren’t just throwing some concessions toward fair trade and living wage,” said Rachel Taber, Community Education Coordinator for Alta Gracia. “We’ve sat down with workers and students and nonprofit groups to listen to what they’re looking for, and we’ve been extremely observant and responsive to those needs.”

Members of the watchdog group visit the factory weekly to check the water quality and the temperature in the building, and discuss work conditions with workers. Representatives of The Workers Rights Consortium also meet with workers in the community, not just at work, to be sure that they can talk freely.

“If a monitor comes up to you at work and your boss is standing right behind you what are you going to say?” Taber asked. “The monitors [from the Consortium] are very cognizant of that and so they meet the workers outside of work.”

For only being in business a short amount of time Alta Gracia has seen tremendous growth, Taber said. The company boasts 135 employees but would like to see more.

Meanwhile, Goldberg, Carberry and others will continue to raise awareness of the work of Alta Gracia. They hope student organizations will partner together to create a social justice coalition on campus to promote not only issues of labor violations but other social justice issues.

“We’d like to see a group like Hawkeyes for Sustainable Labor,” Goldberg said. “We want there to be a group that will continue efforts like this one in the future so the momentum doesn’t disappear.”

Jill Bodach is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at The University of Iowa and is a writing tutor at Kirkwood Community College.


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