Alta Gracia–a Reformed “Sweat Shop”
Jeanie: Alta Gracia, like many Dominican towns and cities, had a “zona franca”, a free trade zone where multinational companies constructed large factories which employed many people, “sweat shop” style. And, like many other zona francas, Alta Gracia’s closed down when labor became cheaper elsewhere. In one factory, however, a group of women decided to fight back. (Some of the history here isn’t entirely clear to me) They teamed up with Students Against Sweat Shops, an American student group, to keep their factory open—but with differences that make it not a sweat shop. Thus, the company Alta Gracia began.
They make shirts and hoodies for universities—those are their only products. We got a tour of the factory and then spent a couple hours in the homes of workers before gathering at the union headquarters for lunch and more chatting. The women were very proud of the differences between Alta Gracia and other companies:
Worker safety and health:
- Dust—one of the big hazards in a clothing factory is dust. Dust from the cutting, sewing, handling of cloth gets in the air and the workers breath it. It also contributes to the risk of fire. The workers giving us the tour pointed out the large vacuum cleaners they use to clean floors and cutting tables. “Sweeping just puts it into the air” they told us.
Fire—being a clothing factory, fire risk is higher than in some kinds of manufacturing. There are fire extinguishers mounted on every support pillar—about every 10 feet. According to our guides, a company specializing in fire extinguishers advised them on what type was most appropriate for each area of the factory. This company also checks the extinguishers every few months to ensure that they are working.
- Evacuation—AG has building evacuation routes clearly marked and kept clear.
One worker is the evacuation leader. His picture is posted; he makes sure evacuation routes are kept clean; he holds frequent drills to practice clearing the building.
- First aid—the workers giving us the tour said that other factories they have worked in had first aid kits—but they were always empty. As with evacuation, one worker is in charge of keeping the first aid station (it is a box on the wall about 2 feet by 2 feet by 1 foot) stocked and organized.
Her picture is posted on the first aid kit and I understood that she has received extra training in first aid.
- Health insurance—the company offers health insurance coverage for workers, spouses, children, even the worker’s parents if these elders are dependent on the worker. We did not get details of cost to the workers. I got the impression that it is affordable and everyone takes the coverage.
- Other—they also talked about ergonomics of sewing factories. Alta Gracia uses good chairs rather than stools or benches for their sewers. They also provide work-level surfaces rather than requiring workers to bend down to a box on the floor every time they need the next piece they are sewing. They pointed out huge fans—“the weather is often hot—we do our best to provide cool air for us.” Obviously these fans would blow a lot of dust around except for the vacuum cleaners they use to keep the dust under control.
- Relations—“we are all a family”. The workers spoke at length about the strong relationship between workers and management. They represented it as very collaborative and respectful.
- Union—85% of the employees belong to the union. Our guides were all leaders in the union but one of the workers we visited had not joined the union. The guides said the union represented the workers whether or not they were union members and there seemed to be close, positive relations between the union leaders and the worker we visited who was not a member. The guides said that, unlike other factors where they had worked, management at Alta Gracia encouraged union organizing.
- Pay—Worker pay begins at 3 times the national minimum wage
- Worker rights organizations—Alta Gracia welcomes visits from worker rights organizations and others. They said that management allows workers to talk freely with visitors and allows visitors to speak with whomever they choose. Because of a lag in orders, the factory was not active when we visited. Our guides took us to visit workers so, while we did not choose who to talk to, we had the freedom of asking any questions we chose. I think we heard a similar story everywhere we went. The women had worked in other zona franca factories where conditions were pretty much point by point the opposite of Alta Gracia: low wages; mandatory overtime; irregular pay day; no health coverage; job loss for union organizing, pregnancy, etc.; no regard for worker safety.
- Pride—over and over and over the people we talked to spoke of and exuded pride in their work and “their” company. While I am not clear about the legal ownership, these workers all feel ownership. They asked the students to carry their message and their hope to universities so that more colleges will carry their products. “We want to grow so we can employ more of our neighbors. Everyone wants to work at Alta Gracia so we need more universities to order from us.”