Sweatshop resistance and transnational activism: the success story of Villa Altagracia

Introduction
 Last month, two textile workers from the Dominican Republic addressed Virginia Tech’s chapter of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and lobbied the university’s administration to support fair trade practices in Latin American apparel factories.1 Their employer, Alta Gracia Fair Trade, is one of a few clothes manufacturers in Latin American free-trade zones to pay its employees a living wage, that is, a salary high enough to guarantee a decent standard of living. Alta Gracia’s main American buyer and distributor is Knights Apparel, whose clothes are increasingly common on U.S. college campuses, including Virginia Tech.

Alta Gracia is now a worldwide example that fair and sustainable working conditions can be attained in garment factories, but the battle for labor fairness at the firm was long and bitter. Workers and their families in Villa Altagracia, a small town in the central Dominican Republic, endured years of coercive practices by the factory’s owners and managers as they sought to organize a union. Their success highlights the power of unionized labor and community activism—with a little help on the side from some American college students.

Labor struggles
In 1997, the Korean-owned BJ&B apparel factory in Villa Altagracia employed some two thousand workers. More than 95% of them were women and their average pay was 69 cents an hour. Although 10-hour workdays were common, total wages per employee amounted to less than $200 a month, which is well below the Dominican government’s guideline for a minimally decent living standard.2,3

As with most Central American sweatshops, workplace sanitation at the Villa Altagracia plant was poor, physical and emotional abuse of workers by managers was frequent, and turnover was high. Even though BJ&B prohibited unionization and the company routinely fired individuals seeking to organize, workers nevertheless continued to petition the firm and the Dominican government for fair labor representation.4

Between 1997 and 2002 the plant’s employees also cooperated with US-based NGOs, including UNITE (Union for Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), USAS, and the newly formed WRC (Workers’ Rights Consortium), a labor-rights monitoring NGO founded by members of USAS. As part of an effort to raise American consumer awareness of conditions at their factory and with the support of the union and interested NGOs, Villa Altagracia workers visited several U.S. college campuses during the five-year period of cooperation to publicize their plight. In response, student groups began campaigns aimed at their administrations to ensure that firms that supplied campus clothing adopted fair business practices. In turn, some university leaders began to pressure their main suppliers (Nike, Champion, GAP, Fila, etc.) to demand fair working conditions at their contracted factories, including BJ&B in Villa Altagracia.5

Still, the brunt of the fight was borne by the Dominican workers themselves. Their employer engaged in anti-union tactics well into 2002, including a campaign that accused several union leaders of terrorism and physically threatened some in their own homes. The union did not negotiate a new contract successfully until 2003. That pact guaranteed improved working conditions and compensation that exceeded the Dominican Republic’s legal minimum wage. Perhaps more importantly, the union obtained public apologies from management for its past brutalizing behavior along with a guarantee that its leaders and members would no longer be harassed.6

Living wage
Despite these union victories, BJ&B gradually moved its operations at Villa Altagracia to lower-wage countries and the company closed the plant in 2007. However, the same factory was acquired and reopened by a new firm, simply called “Alta Gracia,” in 2010. The new company began to rehire workers and guarantee them a living wage.7,8 The firm is now known as Alta Gracia Fair Trade, or Alta Gracia Project.

Today, Alta Gracia stands as a stalwart example of fair employment practices in an industry notorious for its long-time failure to ensure such conditions. The plant’s workplace settings have greatly improved over the years, mostly to the union’s satisfaction.9,10  For example, in 2011 workers were paid an average of $759 per month, well above the free-trade zone’s minimum wage of $216, and slightly higher than the living wage for current residents of the Dominican Republic (which is estimated at between $500-700 per month, depending on the source).11,12

A living wage means more than mere sufficiency. The Spanish term, salario digno, captures this concept better than its English counterpart by highlighting its connection to the concept of human dignity. Lower salaries may allow physical subsistence, but people want more than merely to survive: they want to live a life worthy of their humanity, with decency, dignity, and self-respect.

The struggle for a salario digno is in line with much of the argument underlying the United Nations’ Human Development Reports and Millennium Development Goals. “Development” suggests at least some industrialization and freedom from oppression, but more importantly, it implies individuals who possess both agency and autonomy. And while development in this sense is not limited to earning enough money to make a decent living, sufficient financial means is a key instrumental good that must be ensured to secure it. So even though the labor struggles in Villa Altagracia and elsewhere have often focused on measurable material gains (higher salaries, shorter hours, cleaner workplaces, etc.), these initiatives are all components of a larger effort to ensure human dignity. 

Beyond Alta Gracia
The success story of Villa Altagracia is not an example of financial autonomy in a broadly struggling Latin American economy. Despite the plant’s many workplace condition and compensation improvements, production and sales still operate within a largely capitalist framework and Alta Gracia still makes apparel for U.S. companies that earn a handsome return on it.

Nonetheless, this case does represent an archetype for what a motivated labor force can achieve, and it exemplifies the undeniably transnational character of trade and business in today’s globalized economy. A century ago the struggle of a union was more likely to be limited to its local membership base, which often included one plant, one district, or in some cases, one nation. But, as difficult as it was to achieve, success in Villa Alta Gracia would have been still harder to attain without the union’s deliberate efforts to internationalize its efforts.

To obtain meaningful changes in employment practices and wage fairness at the lower ends of supply chains, this case suggests that proponents of change must apply political and economic pressure at all levels, including (and perhaps chiefly) at the top. This must include workers, consumers, and everyone in between: owners, local management, local vendors, foreign vendors and buyers, schools, and so forth.

More generally, the Alta Gracia experience suggests that all consumers in a world economy share an increasing responsibility to consider the transnational implications of our buying choices; and, as individuals who purport to care about democratic institutions, we also have a duty to assist with struggles for labor fairness when they arise.

References

  1. Emily Hughes, et al. “Garment workers lobby students and Sands.” Collegiate Times. September 9, 2014. Link.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bob Herbert. “In America: Sweatshop U.” The New York Times. April 12, 1998. Link.
  4. Robert J.S. Ross. “A Tale of Two Factories: Successful Resistance to Sweatshops and the Limits of Firefighting.” Labor Studies Journal 30:4 (2006).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Herbert. “In America: Sweatshop U.”
  7. David Gonzalez. “Latin Sweatshops Pressed by U.S. Campus Power.” The New York Times. April 3, 2003. Link.
  8. Steven Greenhouse. “Factory Defies Sweatshop Label, but Can It Thrive?” The New York Times. July 17, 2010. Link
  9. Garrett Brown. “More than an ad campaign: ‘No Sweat’ in the Dominican Republic.” Industrial Safety & Hygiene News 44:20 (2010).
  10. Workers’ Rights Consortium. “Verification report re labor rights compliance at Altagracia Project Factory, Dominican Republic” (2010). Link.
  11. John Kline and Edward Soule. “Alta Gracia: Four Years and Counting.” Reflective Engagement Initiative. Georgetown University (2014). Link.
  12. Workers’ Rights Consortium. “Living Wage Analysis for the Dominican Republic” (2008). Link.

ClaudioDAmato-photoClaudio D’Amato is a second-year Ph.D. student in the ASPECT program, studying ethics and politics and teaching courses in philosophy and political science. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech. His dissertation focuses on a theoretical reconciliation between Amartya Sen’s capability approach to justice and certain forms of political communitarianism.

 

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