The Shirt Project Visits Villa Alta Gracia7.31.2013
To show The Shirt Project committee just how many people were affected by their choice, Alta Gracia flew a few members, including myself, down to the Dominican Republic for a factory visit.
By Allyson Grillot ‘14
Villa Altagracia is a tiny manufacturing town, not unlike the dozens of other communities scattered across the Dominican Republic that provide cheap labor to the clothing industry. What’s different about Villa Altagracia, however, is that it’s home to Alta Gracia, a subsidiary of Knights Apparel. Founded by Joe Bozich, Alta Gracia gained fame both in the Dominican Republic and abroad as the first and only T-shirt supplier to offer its workers a “living wage.” At over three times the standard local minimum wage, Alta Gracia’s generous compensation plan allows workers to afford education, stable housing, and adequate medical care for themselves and their families. The company also has a liberal maternity leave policy for new mothers. Because of this, Alta Gracia has become the premier place to work in this region, and it is quickly gaining fame in America as well.
The Shirt Project is a student-run organization that designs, markets, and sells Notre Dame’s “The Shirt.” Over the past few years, sales have topped 150,000 Shirts, and have filled orders from as far away as Pakistan and Singapore. The Committee first heard about Alta Gracia in late 2011 during the early stages of the design process. They chose Alta Gracia as the supplier for both “The Shirt” 2012 and 2013 because it not only sells quality T-shirts but also supports its workers in a way that no other company does.
To show The Shirt Project committee just how many people were affected by their choice, Alta Gracia flew a few members, including myself, down to the Dominican Republic for a factory visit in late May 2013. Our time there was short, but in those few days we got to experience firsthand just how large a role Alta Gracia plays in the lives of its workers.
Upon our arrival, we piled into a van and drove straight to the factory itself for a tour (pictured above). Ana, our guide for the next few days, met us at the door and showed us the start-to-finish T-shirt assembly process. She explained how conditions in the factory are kept clean and safe, as evidenced by the large emergency evacuation plans hung in high visibility places. Each worker had a comfortable area in which to do their work and the dozens of fans around the factory kept the intense Dominican humidity at bay. The workers also had an open-air lunchroom and social area to which they could relax during breaks.
After touring the facilities, we got the chance to speak to some workers on the floor (with the help of a translator, of course). They told us how fortunate they felt to have secured a job with Alta Gracia. Many told us horror stories of past jobs, or friends who worked in unsafe and unfair conditions. While some mentioned the holiday parties as their favorite part of working at Alta Gracia, most of the workers listed the equal and fair treatment as the company’s best quality. Alta Gracia boasts an above-average count of female union leaders and floor managers, another unique aspect of Alta Gracia. Following our brief encounters with the floor workers, Ana led us out into the neighborhood for some home visits.
Anyone who has ever visited the Dominican Republic in May will immediately note one thing: it never stops raining. While the rainy season is a mere inconvenience to tourists, it can actually pose a threat to some of the poorer areas. Flash floods often wipe out entire neighborhoods where homes are made of nothing more than corrugated metal roofs and haphazard thin wooden walls, or worse. In this region, a concrete house is a luxury item. It provides not only stable shelter, but also a more comfortable environment for a large family. The living wage Alta Gracia offers allows most of its workers to build homes such as this one. We visited a woman who, eager to entertain family and friends, had recently purchased beautifully tassled couches and painted her walls multiple vibrant shades of orange and pink. She readily told us that none of this would be possible if not for her job. She then proudly rolled out her new motorbike, a vehicle she admitted to never learning how to drive. But, she assured us, she had “figured it out” along the way.
As it was getting late, we made one last stop before heading back into the city. Most of the workers belong to an organized union through which they can voice their opinions. The headquarters, just down the street from the factory, acts as a meeting place for many of these members. It was here we were treated to a delicious authentic Dominican meal. Even though the power went out during the meal, with the help of a handful of candles, we continued our conversations. We listened to several women share their candid thoughts on their jobs, and explain to us how fortunate they felt to work for a company that places such a high priority on its workers welfare.
For example, one woman suffered a grievous leg injury that prevented her from working for several months. She kept her job. Others mentioned how at Alta Gracia, they were never forced to demean themselves for male managers in order to keep their jobs. Unfortunately, scenarios such as these play out daily across the Dominican Republic, and often lead to much different results. In a country where jobs are hard to come by, employers often take advantage of vulnerable workers, forcing them to work long hours for unfair pay. Alta Gracia has worked to set a precedent for its employees’ welfare that will hopefully catch on soon. The Shirt Committee was able to see this firsthand, and we are grateful to Alta Gracia for the opportunity to interact with so many wonderful people. The Committee might design it, but it is the men and women at Alta Gracia who are the real creators of The Shirt.