DHAKA, Bangladesh — Two years ago, a fire burned down a Bangladesh garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing 112 workers. Poor working conditions and safety standards contributed to this disaster. Bangladeshi garment factories export around $18 billion worth of garments annually to richer nations and global clothing brands. Their sweatshop workers are “among the world’s lowest paid” and in that Bangladeshi factory, they paid the consequence with their lives. Sweatshop workers around the world are forced to work in disgraceful conditions, with little pay and poor health and safety standards.
In this era of increased globalization worldwide, there has been increased competition amongst multinational corporations and developing countries. Corporations pursue countries with the weakest labor and environmental standards to maximize their profits. They are able to hide behind foreign borders, shrouding their business transactions and work conditions in secrecy. The competition between developing countries to attract foreign investment and employment results in a race to the bottom.
Why do multinational corporations accept the dangerous conditions of their workers in garment factories? And is it possible for corporations to raise the wages of their workers and give them the respect they deserve?
The case of Alta Gracia, a fair trade apparel factory in the Dominican Republic, challenges the traditional perception that the apparel industry’s competitive wage structure requires using the cheapest labor possible in areas where people have no other choice but to work for these factories to escape unemployment and poverty.
Alta Gracia was originally a BJ&B factory that produced baseball caps and apparel for major United States universities and sporting organizations. In 1997, UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) investigated conditions at BJ&B and organized university students from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Together, they targeted university students whose schools bought products produced by BJ&B.
In 2001, the Worker’s Rights Consortium (WRC) was founded. It currently includes over 180 universities who monitor and report labor rights and abuses in their university supply chains. In that same year, BJ&B workers, supported by USAS, filed labor rights violation complaints to WRC. USAS mobilized university students, organized demonstrations and media campaigns, resulting in the first unionized export apparel factory in a Free Trade Zone in the Caribbean.
Seeing the success of USAS, Knights Apparel founded Alta Gracia as a model factory in 2009. Alta Gracia is a fair trade apparel factory that pays their workers living wages, respects their right to organize, treats their workers with dignity and sets high standards of workplace health and safety. Alta Gracia is seen as a historic win for worker’s rights in the garment industry.
The workers at Alta Gracia get paid a living wage, which is more than 3.5 times the current minimum wage in the Dominican Republic. This living wage only increases the cost of a $4 t-shirt by 80 cents. A significant increase of salary for the workers allows them to have higher standards of living, while only costing producers and consumers a tiny increase in cost.
Alta Gracia proves there are other ways to conduct garment factories. In poorer developing countries where cheap labor is rampant, these conditions can be changed through campaigns at universities to increase awareness and reforms to give garment workers higher wages and greater dignity.