Maritza Vargas, who has been employed with Alta Gracia, a collegiate apparel manufacturing company from the Dominican Republic, for the past year, is one of 144 workers at the company — the majority of whom are women – who have benefited from the protests of American university students and officials fighting for better treatment and working conditions of factory workers overseas.
Vargas shared her experiences with SF State students via a Skype call in Professor Juanita Darling’s Latin American policy analysis class April 21.
“I thank all students for forming an organization and focusing on labor standards which has improved our lives,” said Vargas through a translator in her native Spanish language. “This is the kind of factory that allows us to advance ourselves.”
South Carolina-based company Knights Apparel created Alta Gracia, named for the village in which it is located, and opened the factory last year. The company’s mission is to give workers an opportunity to move out of poverty and the hope of a better life.
Alta Gracia is unique because the company also allows for shorter work weeks, subsidized education, and healthcare for factory workers and their families, according to Vargas, who also serves as Union president for employees. The Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights organization based in Washington, D.C., focuses on collegiate-licensed apparel and oversees conditions at Alta Gracia. According to Vargas, it is the only such factory in the country that allows foreign inspection.
Each of the factory’s workers, regardless of gender or age, are paid a living wage around $3 per hour, the amount needed to adequately feed and shelter a family, according to the WRC. Workers typically earn around $500 per month.
Earning a higher wage has enabled Vargas, who has five children, to enroll at a university under a work/study program where she studies English and computer sciences. She and her family also have better living conditions.
“I now have access to health insurance, am able to feed my kids three times a day; before I was not able to do that,” Vargas said. “The kids all have their own rooms, and I am saving money and looking forward to what I can do.”
Darling made the decision to hold the Skype Conference at the beginning of the semester. She found that it resonated with her class’ objective in studying Latin American business policy.
“We’ve been talking about the conditions that exist in this part of the world,” Darling said about the low wages and living conditions that affect many people in Latin America. “It is important for students to see that there are alternatives in such structures.”
According to Vargas, Dominican law calls for a maximum 44-hour workweek, but many garment factories, all of which are locally owned and contracted with foreign companies, have their employees work longer. Many workers earn the national minimum wage of $0.84 per hour.
“It’s a nice change for the company to change their worker policy based on the actions of students,” said Carlos Loera, 22, a political science major. “It’s nice to be connected with real examples.”
Daniel Perez, 22, an economics major, liked the idea of a video conference. “The Skype call was cool,” Perez said. “It really showed me a lot on what workers are going through over there.”
Despite the positive nature of the Skype call and Vargas’ experience, there was some initial skepticism among other students.
“I cannot believe 100 percent of what she said, but if this is true, it’s quite an improvement,” said Sergio Garcia, 36, an international relations major. “This should be an example of improving worker conditions for other countries like China, and these companies should be doing more.”
Alta Gracia claims to sell its t-shirts, hoodies and sweatshirts at the same price as other major brands. Apparel made at the Dominican factory is sold at more than 350 colleges and universities across the U.S., not including SF State.
“Go out. Spread the word,” Vargas said. “Tell everybody at your school to buy Alta Gracia!”