Two workers from a factory in the Dominican Republic, the source of AU Campus Store clothing, spoke on campus Sept. 23 about their experiences with the factory, Alta Gracia.
Alta Gracia started as an organization with the help of United Students Against Sweatshops. This national organization opposes sweatshop labor, especially by factories that make collegiate clothing, according to its website.
The workers, Martiza Vargas and Elba Nurys Olivo de Castillo, have been traveling to college campuses across the East Coast to promote Alta Gracia and show how it has changed their lives.
United Students Against Sweatshops, the Fair Trade Student Association, Student Worker Alliance and the Office of the University Chaplain sponsored the AU event.
Alta Gracia began its efforts in the Dominican Republic in 2000, helping workers who wanted to unionize at a factory in Villa Alta Gracia. After much debate, the factory agreed to give the workers a union contract, but the factory eventually closed and left members of the town economically devastated, according to USAS’s website.
Knights Apparel, a company specializing in college apparel, stepped in and created Alta Gracia, a new factory named after the town where it presided. Knights Apparel rehired the BJ&B union leaders and agreed to recognize their right to negotiate wages, according to the USAS website.
Through a translator, Olivo told an emotional story of a woman with cancer who was able to access surgery through the money she earned at Alta Gracia. She spoke of a worker whose house burnt down, but was able to reconstruct it using her wages.
In an interview with The Eagle, the two workers said working at the factory has improved their lives. Vargas is now able to provide her children with an education and a more spacious house. Olivo said working at the factory took her out of a depression caused by seven years of discouraging unemployment.
Both women agreed that in order for the factory to move forward, an increasing demand for the Alta Gracia products was necessary.
“We’re not going to be making these wins if students don’t get involved,” Vargas said.
AU’s bookstore is also participating in the fight for workers’ rights.
“Not only is Follett an active member (and first ever retail member) of the Fair Labor Association, but today 100 percent of Follett’s clothing and gift vendors are also members, and subject to their code and monitoring efforts,” Campus Store Manager Kristi Colebut said in an email.
Alta Gracia says it tries to go above and beyond in taking care of its workers.
“We pay our workers a wage that enables them to provide adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, health care, child care and education for themselves and their families — a ‘living wage’ — and hope for a better future,” the Alta Gracia website said.
The factory gives workers comfortable chairs and makes sure all ventilation in the building works properly, said Rachel Taber, the community education coordinator for Alta Gracia.
The owners of the factory also try to take safety concerns into account.
“We actually have workshops on how to evacuate the building safety, which is something you never see in other factories in the Free Trade Zone,” Vargas said.
Workers at Alta Gracia are allowed to speak to inspectors without their bosses present, creating an environment where they feel comfortable discussing any issues they may have, Vargas said.
“We have a business everyone deserves,” she said.
A previous version of this article misspelled Martiza Vargas’s name.