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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.

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Bozich and Hodge selected a site in the Dominican Republican where a Korean-owned plant had once made clothing for Nike and Reebok. The company, BJ&B, had shut the factory down after its employees unionized. But its workers had forged ties with American activists, and USAS leaders convinced the Knights executives that students would encourage their peers to buy clothing produced there. In February 2010, after a $500,000 renovation based on recommendations from the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, the Alta Gracia facility opened for business.

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The new factory is far livelier than other nearby workplaces. Bachata music and workers' chatter are constant background noise. The factory has good ventilation, plenty of windows, and overhead lighting help workers avoid eye strain.

But the biggest difference, says Upia, are the chairs. In most Dominican sewing factories, workers sit on hard metal seats with no back support, leaning awkwardly to operate their sewing machines. "We would try to make cushions on the chairs from the scraps of leftover clothes," she recalls. "Your body would hurt all day." Soon after the Alta Gracia factory opened, the workers noticed some nice-looking office chairs being unloaded from a truck. "They must be for the managers," Upia thought. But they had been ordered for the workers, at a cost of about $50 apiece. "Now," says Upia, "I don't have the back pain anymore."

At Alta Gracia, workers have a union, which gives them a voice on the job. In the Free Trade Zones of the Dominican Republic and around the world, unions are often the only hope garment workers have of enforcing basic rights of labor, including water breaks, bathroom breaks, not being fired for being pregnant, and the ability to fight back against sexual harassment and discrimination.

While workers at Alta Gracia don't face these challenges, Sitralpro, Alta Gracia's independent union, serves as one more democratic check on management. During its formation, 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 about workers' rights on company time, which are conducted by the Dominican Labor Foundation. The union and management have a joint health and safety committee, and the union conducts vaccination programs, free courses in financial management and the English language, and HIV prevention workshops. The union and management meet regularly to discuss production, employee morale, and potential improvements to the facility.

"Alta Gracia is the kind of workplace every worker dreams of," observes Maritza Vargas, a leader of Alta Gracia's union. She noted that both union and management at Alta Gracia are largely led by women – uncharacteristic in the Dominican Republic. "We're showing the world what is possible."

The survival of Alta Gracia will largely hinge on whether stateside consumers are aware of the brand and its message. On many campuses efforts to promote it are in full swing. At the University of Maryland, students have circulated fliers reading, "Your sweatshirt can be a force for change in the world."

Other campuses have held fashion shows of union-made clothing. USAS sponsored two Alta Gracia workers who toured 14 campuses from North Carolina to Boston. At Yale and the University of Houston, the visit inspired a student petition to get the university to purchase Alta Gracia T-shirts to distribute to incoming freshmen, at alumni reunions, and other special events.

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