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.
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 $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 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.
Upia 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. One of 120 nonmanagement employees—mostly sewing-machine operators, but also cutters, packers and maintenance staff—Upia, like her co-workers, earns a living wage, plus at least 35 percent overtime for more than forty-four hours of work a week, and more on weekends and holidays. Alta Gracia’s T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold mainly at US colleges and universities 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 to use their names and logos. But implementing these standards was extremely difficult. College-bound goods are only a small fraction of the products made by the thousands of apparel factories around the world, and monitoring all these workplaces would be impossible. For years campus groups like United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) refused to support companies claiming to make “sweatshop-free” clothing, 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 of conduct” drafted in the ’90s, have embraced Alta Gracia as a model that proves 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 Mark Barenberg, a Columbia University law professor and an expert on global labor conditions. “The problem is that they haven’t had reliable information that there are factories that meet those standards. Alta Gracia is a game changer in that respect.”
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Alta Gracia is an unusual collaboration between labor rights advocates, student activists and Joe Bozich, CEO of Knights Apparel, the nation’s leading producer of college clothing, which beats Nike and Adidas to dominate the $4 billion collegiate market. In 2005, Scott Nova, WRC’s executive director and a veteran human rights advocate, contacted Bozich to alert him that a company he had just acquired was doing business with a factory in the Philippines whose workers complained about labor violations to the WRC.