Aracelis “Kuky” Upia, a 39-year-old factory worker in the Dominican Republic, is participating in an experiment that, if it is successful, could help end sweatshops as a staple of the global economy.
A single mother of four, Upia has been sewing in factories since she was 15. For years she earned less than $50 a week. Some employers simply refused to pay her. At one point she was so in debt that the local market stopped extending her credit.
Today, Upia sews T-shirts for $2.85 an hour, a leap in income and nearly three times the country’s minimum wage. She has paid off her loans and can grocery shop again. She has purchased a refrigerator, plans to add rooms to her home to rent out for additional income, and has paid for her son Nisael’s long-postponed dental work.
Upia was among the first workers hired by Alta Gracia Apparel, an apparel factory named after the town where she has lived all her life that produces T-shirts and sweatshirts for U.S. colleges for prices similar to Nike’s.
One of 120 nonmanagement employees—mostly sewing-machine operators, but also cutters, packers, and maintenance staff—Upia earns not only a living wage, but also at least 35 percent overtime for more than 44 hours of work a week, and more on weekends and holidays.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, students on American campuses pressured universities to adopt “codes of conduct” as a condition of allowing companies to use their names and logos. Implementing these standards was difficult, however. College-bound goods are only a small fraction of the products made by the thousands of apparel factories worldwide, and monitoring all these workplaces is next to impossible.
For years, campus groups like United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) refused to support companies claiming to be “sweatshop-free,” because they couldn’t be sure the companies would keep their commitment. Today, USAS, as well as the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), which was founded in 2000 to help enforce the codes drafted in the ’90s, believe Alta Gracia Apparel proves that socially responsible clothing production is not only possible; it’s profitable.
“Surveys consistently show that 80 percent of consumers would be willing to pay a little more for a no-sweat product,” says Columbia University law professor Mark Barenberg. “The problem is that they haven’t had reliable information that there are factories that meet those standards. Alta Gracia is a game changer.”
Alta Gracia resulted from a collaboration between labor rights advocates, student activists, and Joe Bozich, CEO of Knights Apparel, which dominates the nation’s $4 billion college clothing market. In 2005 Scott Nova, WRC’s executive director, contacted Bozich to alert him that a company Knights Apparel had just acquired was doing business with a factory in the Philippines whose workers complained about labor violations.
“Joe was unusual,” recalls Nova. “He didn’t just blame the subcontractor. He wasn’t looking for a quick fix just to get rid of a public relations problem. He was genuinely interested in how to improve conditions for the workers.”
Nova and Bozich started talking about whether the economics of clothing production allowed for “the perfect factory,” one that could produce well-made items in a safe workplace and pay workers decent wages and benefits. Worker abuse surfaces on factory floors, but it is rooted in the dynamics of the global apparel industry, in which design and marketing firms outsource the clothing fabrication to independent contractors worldwide.
Bozich proposed a site in the Dominican Republic where a Korean-owned plant had once made clothing for Nike and Reebok. The company, BJ&B, had shut down the factory after its employees unionized. Its workers had forged ties with U.S. activists, though, and USAS leaders convinced Bozich that students would encourage their peers to buy clothing produced there. In February 2010, after a $500,000 renovation, the Alta Gracia facility opened for business.
In June 2010 Alta Gracia workers established a union and elected leaders. The vote took place in front of the factory with no opposition from management. In fact, the company and the union jointly sponsor employee workshops, on company time, about workers’ rights, conducted by the Dominican Labor Foundation.
The survival of Alta Gracia Apparel will hinge on whether students are aware of the brand and its message. On many campuses, promotion is in full swing. University of Maryland students have circulated fliers reading “Your sweatshirt can be a force for change in the world.” At Occidental College in Los Angeles, a Rock the Tag campaign, which included getting college president Jonathan Veitch to pose for a photo wearing an Alta Gracia T-shirt, was so successful that the campus bookstore sold out its initial order in weeks. Other campuses have held fashion shows of union-made clothing. In September USAS sponsored two Alta Gracia workers who toured 14 American campuses. At Yale the visit inspired a student petition to get the university to distribute Alta Gracia T-shirts to incoming freshmen and at alumni reunions.
“Universities have a responsibility to be concerned about working conditions and compensation,” says David Skorton, president of Cornell University, where Alta Gracia items are sold in the bookstore. “We should encourage students to be aware that what they buy has an impact on the lives of many people.”
At Duke University’s flagship bookstore, Alta Gracia Apparel merchandise is prominently displayed, and a large flat-screen TV plays a video of smiling workers. Such efforts have paid off: Since August 2010, Duke has sold more than 20,000 Alta Gracia items for $430,000 in revenue.
Large schools like the universities of Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin as well as Ohio State and UCLA have increased their orders of Alta Gracia merchandise or are carrying it for the first time. If success continues to build, says Bozich, “then we can take the next steps, including expanding outside college bookstores and selling our brand to other retailers.”
Alta Gracia recently signed a contract with Ethix Merch, a distributor of socially responsible merchandise, to sell T-shirts and sweatshirts to environmental and social justice groups. This is one way to bring the Alta Gracia Apparel model to scale, according to Barenberg. “The other is for companies like Nike to raise wages and improve conditions to appeal to consumers who care about working conditions,” he says. “Once they see there’s a market for sweat-free clothing, they’ll want to go after it.”
Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College. He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and American Prospect. Excerpted from The Nation (November 7, 2011), a progressive publication that weighs in weekly on politics, arts, and culture.