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.
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.
Among the articles in the November 2020 issue of ISHN Magazine, we discuss what smart factory really means, delve into the perils of water damage, learn how to prevent eye injuries, and take a deep dive into silicosis dangers when working with quartz.