On The Ground in Villa Altagracia (University of Montana Student Tells All!)


Guest Blog Post by Ketti Wilhelm

Hello Alta Gracia supporters!   
I am writing from Villa Alta Gracia, Dominican Republic, where I will be for the remainder of the week as a representative of the United Students Against Sweatshops affiliate group at the University of Montana, Students for Economic and Social Justice (SESJ).  I’ve witnessed the profound impact that Alta Gracia workers´ living wage and right to speak their minds has had in the entire community and it has motivated me to keep supporting workers´ rights by buying Alta Gracia and encouraging others to do the same. 

For the past year our major campaign has been getting Alta Gracia products on the shelves of our campus´ bookstore.  Now that AG products are available, the continuing challenge is making sure consumers are aware that there is a union-made, living wage collegiate apparel option readily available to them.  To that end, we have been shamelessly promoting AG with raffles, tabling in our Student Union, posters, photo collages, and even an AG themed kegger.   
During my first couple of days on the ground here in Villa Alta Gracia I’ve been able to talk with workers and community members about how AG has affected their lives.  For example, the woman I’m staying with, Maritza, who is the union leader at AG, has used her living wage paychecks to move her family into a reasonably sized home.  By U.S. standards, this house would be considered quite modest, but Maritza calls it her 'palace'.  Before working at AG, Maritza lived in a ramshackle cinder block affair with an outdoor latrine and shared a bed with her teenage daughter.  The rest of her children were scattered out, living with relatives who could take them in.  Now, the family is united in a small but dignified house with separate bedrooms for her two college-age children and indoor plumbing. This all comes from a living wage of about US$2.83 per hour.   
There have been two common themes so far in the reactions of community members who do not work at the AG factory, First, after I explain that I am here doing community research on the AG factory and describe the factory’s revolutionary business model (if it is not already understood), I am almost inevitably presented with an oral resume and asked whether I can get my new acquaintance a job at the Alta Gracia factory.  Hearing this reaction over and over has been heart-wrenching.  The people in this town are grasping at straws for a job that offers simple human dignity.   
But there has also been a common reaction that gives me hope. In a country where the majority of the population does not have access to education past primary school, one concept everyone I’ve talked to seems to understand is the idea of the common good.  I have not yet met anyone who is resentful of the unusually high wage (340% of the minimum wage) and good working conditions that the 150 AG employees enjoy.  Everyone I’ve talked to wishes they could work for a company that offers what Alta Gracia offers, but everyone seems to understand that this is a step in the right direction for the whole community, not just an unfair advantage for a lucky few.  People here understand the possibility that maybe someday having an employer who pays decently, accepts the workers´ right to organize, and provides comfortable working conditions will be the norm, not the exception.  Of course, if the Alta Gracia business model is to become the norm, foreign consumers must demand this kind of respect for the workers who sew their T-shirts.  
Thank you for your interest in Alta Gracia!  I’m looking forward to talking with more workers and community members here in Villa Alta Gracia, and I’ll keep you posted on what I’m hearing. 


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