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Trupin '13: A Call for Consumer Activism

This February, as you head to the bookstore in search of a wardrobe that matches your school spirit, something will be a little different. A few of the Brown-emblazoned items will not be your typical Under Armour or Champion brand wear. You may see a hoodie or a tee that says "Alta Gracia" on the label.

At $39.99 and $19.99 respectively, these hoodies and tees are among the cheapest options at the bookstore. The price, however, is not the only reason to consider buying them. These garments were made by people who earn enough to improve the quality of their lives and provide opportunities for their children.

Alta Gracia is a living wage factory in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic. Its workers receive wages sufficient to provide for three quarters of the basic needs in a Dominican family of four, or more than three times the Dominican minimum wage. As Alta Gracia worker Mariza Vargas puts it on the company's website, "Alta Gracia is great for me and my family because it gives us the chance for a better education — even for me to go back to school!"

Things were not always this rosy at Alta Gracia. For years, the factory was operated by BJ&B, a Korean company that made Nike and Reebok brand caps for colleges and universities in the U.S. Workers from the BJ&B plant reported suffering many abuses typical of sweatshops, including forced overtime, lock-ins, verbal and physical abuse and dismissal for trivial causes. In 2001, when BJ&B workers unionized and sought recognition from the company, management retaliated by firing 20 union leaders.

Only through extensive campaigning — in which U.S. college students played a pivotal role — did the company finally agree to negotiate a union contract in 2003.  The result was the most worker-friendly contract in the Dominican garment industry, but in 2007, the factory closed, leaving the community in Villa Altagracia destitute as the owners sought out lower-wage labor overseas.

This state of affairs might have continued indefinitely, thus indicating the futility of fighting sweatshop conditions.

But it didn't. A year ago, Knights Apparel reopened the factory under the name "Alta Gracia." The new factory is an experiment of historic proportions, as it represents one of the first instances in which such a factory has attempted to pay a living wage. The resulting increase in labor cost — at about 80 cents per T-shirt — comes mostly out of the company's profits, meaning that retail prices are competitive with industry standards.

This model depends on the idea that consumers really want to buy living wage garments at moderate prices. In other words, the fate of the Alta Gracia experiment is now in our hands. We can either prove or disprove the power of consumer consciousness. Either way, the outcome will have a significant impact on the future of workers' rights in the garment industry.

To clarify the importance of this moment in our lives as consumers, it is worthwhile to consider some of its historical context. Next month will mark the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in 18 minutes during a fire at a garment factory in New York City. The victims, who were mostly young, non-unionized immigrant women, were unable to escape the fire because of locked exits. The public outcry that followed this tragic event led not only to the establishment of safety codes, but also to increasing public support for the labor movement. Over the following decades, garment industry sweatshops waned in this country.

Critics of the anti-sweatshop movement hold that sweatshops are a necessary, albeit unfortunate, reality of industrial development. They point to the example of the demise of sweatshops in the industrial world as evidence that economic growth ultimately "raises all boats." Yet this argument is seriously flawed for at least one obvious reason: Sweatshop conditions still exist in the United States. In 2000, half of the 434 investigations conducted in the garment industry by the Department of Labor found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If economic development is the only way sweatshops will disappear, then how much more development will we need before sweatshops disappear here, let alone elsewhere?

Last December, 28 were killed and more than 100 were injured in a garment factory fire in Bangladesh. Perhaps the most striking thing about the fire, which took place in a factory owned by a company that makes clothes for such brands as JCPenney, Walmart and Target, is that it is exactly similar to the details of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Doors to fire escapes were locked, yes, and other safety measures were similarly nonexistent, yes. And like in the fire 100 years ago, the garment industry giants want to use the status of the victims as subcontracted labor to deny responsibility. In short, nothing has changed for those workers. Nothing will change until we as consumers demonstrate to global corporations that we stand for people before profit. Alta Gracia is a first step.



 Ian Trupin '13 has not yet declared a concentration, but finds his new hoodie most sexy.



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