By Shareen Hertel and Kyle Muncy
Work in the garment industry is a first rung into the formal employment sector for many people globally. The American and British industrial revolutions were powered by textile manufacturing. Countless waves of immigrants (largely women) sewed for a living – often for low wages, longer hours, and in dangerous conditions. As modern industrial safety laws and unionization led to more humane conditions in the wealthier countries, a race-to-the-bottom ensued as low-wage/high risk, non-unionized garment manufacturing shifted “offshore” to poorer nations.
The Alta Gracia factory in the Dominican Republic broke this mold. Founded in 2010 by Joe Bozich, a former pro-athlete who had successfully transitioned to manufacturing collegiate and sports-team-themed apparel, Alta Gracia paid two and a half times the Dominican minimum wage (i.e., workers earned roughly $2.60 an hour as opposed to the national minimum wage of roughly $1.06 an hour). A union was active on site and one of the top monitoring organizations in the labor rights field – the Workers’ Rights Consortium – had an office on site and brokered ongoing monitoring, compliance and engagement of workers and other stakeholders.
Hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the USA bought into the Alta Gracia brand, commissioning the company to sew their logos on t-shirts, hoodies, and other apparel: the faces of workers whose lives had been transformed by working for the company were on the hang-tags, and their stories were integral to the brand’s identity. Facemasks sewed by Alta Gracia workers has been given to each and every student, faculty and staff member at University of Connecticut (as well as other universities) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the Alta Gracia factory is in danger of closing. The challenge of sustaining a viable volume of apparel orders during the pandemic is partly to blame. Shifts in ownership and resulting challenges in management and quality control have been another source of stress: the company has been sold and re-sold to three different holding companies in under a decade. But Alta Gracia’s closing is also a reflection of how little consumers pay attention to who makes our clothes. Those faces on the hang tags mattered when college students were in their bookstores, riffling through hoodies on the rack. But the online marketplace is awash in images – and the desire to “make up” for shipping costs or “save time” by buying from vendors with just-in-time delivery has meant that the price per garment is driven even lower with the click of a mouse and our distraction from the real story of the people behind the tag.
In Villa Altagracia, the small town where this company is based, the roughly 200 workers who have had jobs in the factory have been the lucky ones. Their friends and neighbors have sought to make ends meet with jobs that pay far less, or by piecing together income through part-time work or in jobs in the informal sector that are often unsafe and unregulated.
The prospect of losing Alta Gracia means losing a model of a factory that defied the race-to-the-bottom by building solidarity among people along the supply chain – including college students and university communities. Unless there’s an offer to buy the firm by investors who could bring it through the pandemic, we lose a key alternative for more socially sustainable business.
At the University of Connecticut, the Business and Human Rights Initiative has hosted events on the apparel sector and socially sustainable business in partnership with the President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility, including “Protecting Rights at the End of the Line: Stakeholder Engagement in Light Manufacturing” and the “Corporate Social Responsibility and Human Rights Summit”.
For information on the Business and Human Rights Initiative at UConn, please visit https://businessandhumanrights.uconn.edu/.
For information on the President’s Committee on Corporate Social Responsibility at UConn, please visit https://csr.uconn.edu/.