Crim: Alta Gracia is Promising Model for Apparel Industry

Dawn Crim

Changing how an apparel factory operates can have a profound impact on an entire community. Dawn Crim witnessed that earlier this year during a trip to the Dominican Republic.

As special assistant to the chancellor for community relations and liaison to the Labor Licensing Policy Committee at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Crim spent five days in March visiting factories, meeting with workers and non-governmental organizations to ensure that companies licensed to produce UW–Madison merchandise respect worker rights.

She speaks glowingly of her visit to Alta Gracia, a community about an hour west of Santa Domingo, where, in April 2010, Knights Apparel opened a factory that pays the 130 unionized workers $114 per week, more than three times the country’s minimum wage, $33. Employees are able to have an open dialogue with their employer, and outside observers rate the working conditions as exemplary.

“I was impressed by the way that the entire community was elevated,” says Crim, who has been checking out UW-licensed apparel factories for four years. Alta Gracia apparel is one of three fair-trade lines currently available at University Bookstore.

UW-Madison has contracts allowing more than 500 companies to make products bearing the university’s name or logos. The products are made in approximately 3,300 factories in 47 countries.

All UW–Madison licensees commit to a code of conduct mandating humane standards of production, but Alta Gracia’s commitments go far beyond those requirements. The Workers Rights Consortium, an independent watchdog organization, has verified the entire production process and will monitor it.

In Alta Gracia, workers showed Crim how they had been able to improve their housing and told her they could now afford to send their children to school.

“It has really lifted an entire community out of poverty,” she says. She describes the success at Alta Gracia as a major economic driver for the entire region, noting, for instance, that eight new businesses have opened just outside the factory.

“It has influenced neighboring communities, provided hope and raised goals for other factories,” she adds. She notes that nearby factories also have gone to unionized workforces, in an area that not so long ago lacked a stellar record on worker rights.

“To do something like this requires a committed company,” Crim says.

She credits Joseph Bozich, the CEO of Knights Apparel, for taking the initiative and assuming the entire risk for this venture. She finds it refreshing to see a licensee act because it’s the right thing to do, and not simply because of external pressure.

Crim hopes that others will follow the example of Alta Gracia, but she recognizes the challenges.

“The apparel industry is rapidly moving to China,” she says. And that puts more pressure on factories to lower prices and costs.

“Competing on price alone is not always best for the workforce,” she says.

The long-term success of fair trade clothing makers like Alta Gracia depends on consumer awareness and their commitment to rewarding the initiative. She likens this to the organic food and “buy local” movements.

“At the end of the day, it ultimately can’t come down to price,” she says. She cites the quality of the work and the relationships behind the products. (At the University Bookstore, Alta Gracia sweatshirts and T-shirts are priced on a par with comparable items produced elsewhere.)

To educate customers, all Alta Gracia garments carry special tags to tell the story. The factory also has a website:

Crim also has spread the word, writing an article for The Capital City Hues and making presentations to the UW–Madison Labor Licensing Policy Committee and the City of Madison Committee on Sweat-Free Purchases.

In the Hues article, she concludes, “It is great to work on an assignment that provides hope and is enabling workers around the world to dream of a better life. It is also great to know we have found a product that we can tell our faculty, staff and students when they buy them; they are truly making a difference in peoples’ lives.”

— by Kerry G. Hill