By Tiffany Finck-Hanes
Strength. Power. Unity. Workers at Alta Gracia, a living-wage union-made apparel factory embody these words. After years of working under exploitative factory conditions in the Free Trade Zone in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic, workers organized to create Alta Gracia, a model factory where they receive more than three times the local minimum wage and are able to adequately support their families with healthy food, shelter, health care and education.
In the beginning of January I was fortunate to travel to Villa Altagracia on a trade justice delegation with the Fair World Project. Not only did we visit the factory Alta Gracia, we also spent quality time with many of the workers, their children and other members of the community. While hiking to a the local river, dancing bachata or sharing a meal, I learned about years of discrimination and abuse that many of the workers have experienced and the sacrifices they made to organize and create Alta Gracia. Yenni, one of the original organizers of Alta Gracia explained, “I decided I needed to put myself one hundred percent into the fight. I was willing to give up privileges because if people were going to make things better for all workers, it was something I had to do.”
Kenny, another worker at Alta Gracia explained, “Since Alta Gracia, I’ve been able to buy land and build my family a house. I like investing my hard work and money in good things and having something to demonstrate for my work.” Kenny and other workers are not only able to demonstrate that they can provide for their families through hard work, but they have also helped positively impact the rest of the Villa Altagracia community as more resources are invested and distributed amongst community members.
Alta Gracia is succeeding because everyone wants to work there. People are happy to come to work, which is clear as workers sing along to Christian music in the morning and sway to bachata in the afternoon. Overtime hours are optional, attending school in the evening is possible and everyone is part of a working team, part of a family. Maritza, one of the other founders of Alta Gracia explains, “We’re brothers and sisters. The difference between Alta Gracia and other factories is like heaven and earth.”
To ensure that Alta Gracia continues to thrive, it is imperative to raise awareness amongst consumers. As Yenni explains, “With a connection between the consumers and the workers we can create change. If there isn’t a connection, there won’t be change.” To date, many universities have started sourcing apparel from Alta Gracia. Maritza explains: “The reality that is without student activism and the Worker Rights Consortium we couldn’t have achieved what we have. We couldn’t have set the groundwork for what we have today. It’s important to organize together because it’s impossible on our own. Unity is important.”
In order for Alta Gracia to continue to succeed and for more members of Villa Altagracia to secure living wage jobs, we as consumers must create a larger demand for Alta Gracia. The university apparel industry is large and the opportunity is great for Alta Gracia to grow within this market. In addition, we can look to increase other consumer demand as well by promoting wholesale orders. We can also organize to support the growth of more unionized factories where workers earn a living wage.
Everyone can purchase from Alta Gracia and everyone should. The more work we create for Alta Gracia, the more we prove that a just factory model is not only possible, but it can be successful, and the faster we can transform the wider apparel industry to mirror Alta Gracia standards, benefitting workers and their communities.
Tiffany Finck-Hanes is a senior at George Washington University and an intern with SweatFree Communities. She visited Villa Altagracia in January of 2012.