Workers in global supply chains have not had an easy time of it this year.

Sixteen young workers producing iPhones and iPads for Apple committed suicide in the giant Foxconn factory in southern China. Two dozen workers in their 20s at Samsung’s semiconductor labs in Korea died of leukemia and other cancers. The latest factory fire in Bangladesh  - one of a score that happen each year  - killed 21 and injured another 50 women garment workers.

But this spring, a garment factory in the Dominican Republic broke out of the global “race to the bottom” in working conditions in an industry notorious for sweatshops.

The Alta Gracia Project pays more than twice the prevailing wage for garment workers, has a member-controlled trade union, and has made workplace health and safety a priority. The factory produces T-shirts and sweatshirt “hoodies” for Knights Apparel, the South Carolina-based company supplying universities throughout the U.S. with logo garments.

Knights Apparel has footed the bill to renovate an abandoned factory in one of the DR’s 40-plus “free trade zone” industrial parks, installed new production and safety equipment, and agreed to pay a “living wage” and work with a worker-selected union. Initial orders have launched the 130-worker plant, but Knights hopes for big orders this fall from university bookstores that should look favorably on its genuine “no sweat” garments. The concept is the brainchild of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a labor rights non-governmental organization contracted by over 185 universities, and cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, to ensure that their “sweat-free” logo clothing is actually produced under decent conditions.

Building the model

In June 2008, the WRC found a partner in Knights Apparel and a factory location in the DR where there is a long history of garment production and a large pool of skilled workers. The “Alta Gracia”-brand factory is located in Villa Altagracia on a site where another contract manufacturer shut its doors rather than pay higher wages and allow a union to be formed by the employees.

The Alta Gracia plant operates four 9.5-hour days and a 6-hour day on Fridays, for the standard 44-hour free trade zone work week. Weekly pay at the plant is 4,189 pesos ($115), more than three times the country’s minimum wage of 1,246 pesos ($34) and almost triple the average wage of Dominican garment workers of 1,490 pesos ($41). That’s a wage differential of $2.61 an hour at Alta Gracia compared to 93 cents an hour for average garment workers. The plant’s union is affiliated to FEDOTRAZONAS, the national federation of free trade zone workers that also represents workers in eight other workplaces.

Interestingly, Knights Apparel has gotten static from some other garment producers and retailers for setting a “bad example.” If the industry was serious about corporate social responsibility claims of “worker empowerment” and a “living wage,” then Knights’ initiative should be seen as a model of corporate good citizenship.

Outside help

Worker safety was a top concern even before the plant opened as the WRC and Knights Apparel invited OHS professionals from the California-based Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN) to consult on equipment purchases, such as ergonomic chairs for sewing machine operators, and to make two sites visits to the DR facility. The site visits occurred in February, when the first of four production modules started up, and in June, when all four modules were producing university T-shirts and hoodies shipped to the U.S.

The MHSSN team, who all volunteered their time while Knights picked up the travel expenses, consisted of Network Coordinator Garrett Brown, Mariano Kramer, a recently retired Cal/OSHA Senior Safety Engineer who coordinated the agency’s garment sweatshop sweeps in Los Angeles, and Valeria Velazquez, a health educator from UC Berkeley’s Labor Occupational Health Program.

During the visits, the OHS team found many of the usual hazards associated with garment factories  - electrical system issues, machine guarding concerns, ergonomic risks from highly repetitive work, chemical exposures from the “spot remover” solvents and airborne cotton dust, and heat illness concerns in a non-air conditioned factory in the tropics.

Rapid upgrades

In a refreshing change from many garment operations, however, these issues have been rapidly addressed by plant management, assisted by both their international customer, Knights Apparel, and by the union which was formed between the two site visits. Safety-related changes in the factory, both before and after the MHSSN visits, have included:

  • installation of brand new electrical circuits in the building and equipment;
  • upgraded guards on sewing machines and other equipment’s belts and nip points;
  • improved lockout/tagout procedures for maintenance and operations;
  • use of state-of-the-art, ergonomically-correct chairs by sewing machine operators;
  • installation of an effective local exhaust system to remove solvent vapors from the spot removing room;
  • substitution of less toxic cleaners for solvents typically used in the industry (methylene chloride and toluene);
  • housekeeping procedures that mandate vacuuming production areas several times a day to reduce settled and airborne dusts;
  • installation of additional roof fans to reduce the building’s heat load, and procedures for mandatory water breaks during high temperature periods; and
  • provision of appropriate personal protective equipment for cloth cutting, chemical use, and material handling operations.

Essential role for workers

Under Dominican law, the plant is required to establish a joint heath and safety committee on-site. The committee has taken on the responsibility for maintaining safe conditions through periodic facility inspections, accident and illness investigations, verification of hazard corrections, and training the plant workforce on topics such as ergonomics, chemical hazards, heat illness, and emergency action plans.

In the U.S., a plant H&S committee and these kinds of activities might seem unremarkable, routine and “old hat.” But in the DR, as in other developing countries where the world’s garments are produced, this is very unusual and absolutely essential for establishing and maintaining a safe workplace.

The Dominican Republic, with a population of 9.8 million and a workforce of 4.4 million, has only nine government health and safety inspectors for the entire country. Occupational health and safety in the DR is almost totally dependent on active, effective committees and programs on a workplace level. Most plants in the DR have inactive, or only nominal, plant safety committees and OHS programs.

Building OHS capacity

The day after the Alta Gracia site visit in June, the MHSSN team put on a full-day training in Santo Domingo with representatives of seven of the union federation’s nine plant locals, including Alta Gracia, as well as representatives of Fundación Laboral, a leading labor rights organization in the DR, and Batay Ouvriye, a labor rights group from neighboring Haiti.

The goal of the Santo Domingo training was to begin the process of building OHS capacity and a safety culture in the plants represented by the union federation, which itself is considering establishing a federation-level health and safety department.

Global supply chains in electronics, toys, apparel, sports shoes and equipment, remain riddled with sweatshops  - some of which hide behind the façade of corporate codes of conduct and “third party” monitoring schemes. Other sweatshops make no bones about the source of their “rock bottom prices.” In the case of the Alta Gracia brand’s plant, however, “no sweat” actually means “no sweat.”