Day 3 at Alta Gracia Apparel Factory: “This is a Dream”

Courtney Lang April 13, 2012
In March, Fair Trade Towns USA sent 12 volunteer organizers on a 7 day learning tour of Fair Trade farms in Dominican Republic. The travelers came from town and city campaigns all over the country to see the effects of their hard work visiting cocoa, coffee and banana farms, as well as a sweat-free apparel factory.  This series chronicles the trip through the eyes of a different organizer each day.
This blog post comes to us from Kendra Frink of Fair Trade Overland Park

Mutual Respect in the Work Environment

As we arrive in the community of Villa Altagracia, we make our way to the free trade zone (zona franca) where will visit the apparel factory of Alta Gracia. Alta Gracia, a brand of Knight’s Apparel, produces collegiate clothing sold in university bookstores. The project focuses on unionized labor and mutual respect between the company and its employees, paying a living wage.

The factory where Alta Gracia is currently located is in a free trade zone. The building was once home to a Korean-based company which produced baseball hats and employed approximately 3000 people. A group of workers at the former factory contacted the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC) and United Students Against Sweatshops to create a coalition in order to pressure the company for better wages. They achieved the first bargaining agreement in a Dominican free trade zone. The process of creating the coalition and achieving the bargaining agreement was a great feat and learning experience for the employees; however because of competition with other factories, the company began to lay off workers. Eventually, the plant was shut down in 2007 as the production shifted overseas.

When the facilities shut down, five women sought help and started to build a movement with support from the Worker’s Rights Consortium. The WRC worked with Knight’s Apparel, to initiate the Alta Gracia project. In order to establish a living wage, in contrast to the country’s legal minimum wage in a free trade zone, they conducted studies of the wages necessary for a worker to support a family of five. The group established a wage that was three times higher than the minimum. Knight’s Apparel engaged in open discussions with the workers and collective bargaining rights were respected throughout the process. The Alta Gracia factory opened in the existing free trade zone in April 2010. Currently, Alta Gracia has 135 employees and the monthly wage is approximately RD$20,800/month ($548USD), compared to the legal minimum wage of approximately RD$5900/month ($155USD) and the wages are evaluated every October. The factory completes the sewing, tagging and application of the certification emblem for the clothing.

Transforming Lives through Employment

Workers from the apparel factory shared with us the dramatic positive impact that Alta Gracia has brought to their lives.

We had the opportunity to hear stories from Alta Gracia employees describing how working at the factory has positively transformed their lives. Ricardo shared, “I used to work at an electric company. I had to cut power to those who did not pay their bills. I made 7000 pesos (approx. $185USD) per month. I applied to Alta Gracia since I had worked in some free trade zones as a machine operator.” Clari said, “This is a dream. I am able to buy my kids uniforms and pay for health insurance.” Alberto shared, “I have a lot of experience in textiles. I had worked in another free trade zone and heard I could make four times more. Everybody thought it wasn’t true.” Carlotta said, “I used to work at a bakery. I now make more in a week than I used to make in a month. I have bought an acre of land to build a house.” All of the employees shared that they have a much better life working at Alta Gracia.

It was very uplifting to hear how working on this project has impacted the lives of the employees. Being members of a union, they are able to bargain collectively and are respected in their workplace. In Spanish, the term for “living wage” is “salario digno”, and the wages received at Alta Gracia are just that – a dignified salary.

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Courtney Lang, National Organizer | Fair Trade Campaigns

Courtney Lang brings over 5 years of community organizing to Fair Trade Towns USA, building both the Local Food and Fair Trade networks in Vermont. As Local Food Coordinator with City Market/Onion River Cooperative, Courtney worked with local producers, institutions and consumers to grow the local food system and organize a strategic model for community engagement through farm tours, workshops, and local food challenges. Like many in the Fair Trade industry, Courtney was inspired to take action in Fair Trade when she witnessed child-labor first hand in Costa Rica. As a founding member of Fair Trade Burlington, she has worked with economic development organizations, businesses, and consumers to build awareness of Fair Trade among Vermonters. She also worked with a Fair Trade USA licensee, Vermont Coffee Company, as Friend Ambassador where she united the story of Fair Trade to every purchase of coffee.