Clothing factory commits to living wage
Dominican Republic factory pays its workers three times the legal minimum
In response to appeals from myriad university officials and student activists that the garment industry stop using poverty-wage sweatshops, Knights Apparel has set up a factory in the Dominican Republic which pays its 120 workers a living wage. Knights Apparel is a privately held company based in Spartanburg, S.C., and the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities.
The Alta Gracia factory has pledged to pay employees nearly three and a half times the prevailing minimum wage, based on a study done by a workers’ rights group that calculated the living costs for a family of four in the Dominican Republic.
For Knights, the factory is a risky proposition, even though it already has orders to make T-shirts and sweatshirts for bookstores at 400 American universities. The question is whether students, alumni and sports fans will be willing to pay $18 for the factory’s T-shirts — the same as premium brands like Nike and Adidas — to sustain the plant and its generous wages.
Joseph Bozich, the C.E.O. of Knights, is optimistic. “We’re hoping to prove that doing good can be good business, that they’re not mutually exclusive,” he says.
Will people pay?
Not everyone is so confident. “It’s a noble effort, but it is an experiment,” says Andrew Jassin, an industry consultant who says “fair labor” garments face a limited market unless deft promotion can snare consumers’ attention — and conscience. “There are consumers who really care and will buy this apparel at a premium price,” he says, “and then there are those who say they care, but then just want value.”
Mr. Bozich says the plant’s T-shirts and sweats should command a premium because the company uses high-quality fabric, design and printing.
Not the first
Jim Wilkerson, Duke University’s director of licensing and a leader of American universities’ fair-labor movement said a few other apparel companies have tried to improve working conditions, like School House, which was founded by a 25-year-old Duke graduate and uses a factory in Sri Lanka. Worker advocates applaud these efforts, but many say Alta Gracia has gone further than others by embracing higher wages and unionization. A living wage is generally defined as the amount of money needed to adequately feed and shelter a family.
Looking to the long-term
“What really counts is not what happens with this factory over the next six months,” Mr. Wilkerson says. “It’s what happens six years or 10 years from now. We want badly for this to live on.”
Santa Castillo agrees. She and many co-workers toiled at other factories for the minimum wage, currently $147 a month in this country’s free-trade zones, where most apparel factories are located. That amount, worker after worker lamented in interviews for this article, falls woefully short of supporting a family.
While some critics view the living wage as do-gooder mumbo-jumbo, Ms. Castillo views it as a godsend. In her years earning the minimum wage, she said she felt stuck on a treadmill — never able to advance, often borrowing to buy necessities.
“A lot of times there was only enough for my kids, and I’d go to bed hungry,” she says. “But now I have money to buy meat, oatmeal and milk.”
With higher wages, she says, her family can move up in the world. She is now able to borrow $1,000 to begin building her future home and feels able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a minister at her local evangelical church.
“I hope God will continue to bless the people who brought this factory to our community,” she says.