Alta Gracia factory produces fair-trade clothing
For years, college student activists have pressured their schools to make sure clothing with college logos is sweatshop-free. Now, they have another choice: fair-trade clothing manufactured in the Dominican Republic by Alta Gracia.
Aracelis "Kuky" Upia, a 39-year-old factory worker in the Dominican Republic, is participating in an experiment that, if successful, could help end sweatshops as a staple of the global economy.Skip to next paragraph
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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 deeply in debt, the local market stopped extending her credit.
Today, Upia sews T-shirts for $3.02 an hour, a huge leap in income and nearly three times the country's minimum wage. She has paid off her loans and can shop again at the grocery store. 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. Her son Yacer is studying accounting at the university.pia was among the first workers hired by Alta Gracia, an apparel company named after the town where she has lived all her life and where the factory is based. Alta Gracia's T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold mainly at colleges and universities in the United States at about the same prices as clothing made by Nike, Russell, and other brands.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, students on American campuses used various forms of protest to pressure universities to adopt "codes of conduct" as a condition of allowing companies the rights to use their names, mascots, and logos. These codes looked good on college websites, but universities had no capacity to implement these standards until human-rights activists formed the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) in 2000, providing colleges with an independent watchdog group that had contacts across the globe and could monitor factory conditions in response to worker complaints. About 180 universities have now affiliated with the WRC by paying annual dues to help fund its investigations. The WRC is independent of companies in their governance and funding.
College-bound goods are just a small fraction of the products made by the thousands of apparel factories around the world, but they form a highly visible niche within the industry, targeted to a customer base who can be persuaded to think about the working conditions and ethical standards surrounding the clothing they purchase. These factors give students considerable leverage in shaping the reputations of major clothing brands, and thus make apparel companies wary of offending them. If students pressure their universities to sever their business relationship with a major clothing label, the bad publicity can have damaging ripple effects in the wider apparel marketplace.
The WRC is an established way that students can do this. The consortium's global network of in-country field representatives monitors factory conditions in response to workers' complaints; the WRC then publishes its reports online. Unlike other organizations that claim to certify and monitor factory conditions overseas, the WRC refuses to accept funding from any company, including Alta Gracia. This avoids the conflict-of-interest that can lead other organizations to favor management (who often pay the certifier fees) over workers.
The WRC views its role as holding companies accountable by shining the light of publicity on them. It operates on the basis that workers are the best source of information about the day-in day-out realities of their workplaces. WRC works closely with a network of human rights groups around the world who get information about working conditions directly from employees. This is preferable to having corporate accounting firms and other business-oriented consultants parachute into countries to examine clothing factories, often after alerting management that they are on their way.