Virginia Tech students and alumni stock up regularly on maroon and orange apparel. Claire Wiklund, on the other hand, wanted to know where her spiritwear came from.
When the sophomore biology major traveled to La Villa Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic with an organization called the Fair World Project, it did not take her long to find the answer she was looking for.
While she was there learning about unionizing and campaigning, she heard about Alta Gracia, a business model that has developed from more than a decade of combined student and worker organizations.
“We stayed in the homes of workers and learned a lot about unionizing and campaigning. We also traveled around the Dominican countryside, visiting and networking between Alta Gracia’s strong union and other developing unions,” Wiklund said.
Wiklund explained how the movement for better working conditions started, which gave rise to Alta Gracia apparel.
“Ten years ago, the United Students Against Sweatshops recognized the need for a better system for monitoring labor quality in the apparel industry,” Wiklund said, “They jump-started the creation of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, an independent watchdog organization that is funded by universities and publishes reports about labor conditions in the supply chains of affiliated universities.”
Workers at an apparel factory, called BJ&B, worked with USAS for five years to unionize — a dangerous endeavor considering the infrastructure of the sweatshop-oriented labor industry. In 2005, BJ&B burnt down and the rural town of Alta Gracia was left without a significant source of income.
In 2009, Knights Apparel, the national leader in collegiate apparel, recognized the market for responsibly produced collegiate apparel and opened the Alta Gracia factory.
The factory is the first of its kind because it was built in concordance with WRC safety standards and is centralized around a strong union, the heart of the labor conditions initiative.
“The amazing thing about Alta Gracia is that it pays workers a living wage, three times higher than the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic. This wage allows workers to access education, healthcare and nutrition for their family, which are basic human rights denied by the standard sweatshop wage,” Wiklund said.
Last year, Wiklund worked under Oxfam, an organization that has been running the Alta Gracia campaign for the past three years. Wiklund hopes that there will be a reemergence of Tech’s USAS chapter to help raise awareness about Alta Gracia and related labor justice issues.
“Tech represents a large portion of collegiate apparel market shares. As a university founded on the principles of Ut Prosim and Hokie Respect, it is a travesty that our own branding would support severe labor abuse,” Wiklund said.
Wiklund said that Alta Gracia apparel produces high quality products and costs the same if not less than comparable brands. She hopes to see Tech move toward having responsible sourcing practices and that Tech joins the Alta Gracia initiative, which she feels is a step in the right direction.
For almost three years, members of Oxfam have been meeting with the University Bookstore in efforts to secure an order of Alta Gracia apparel. Oxfam has announced that an order has been placed and Alta Gracia will finally be hitting the bookstore in the next couple of weeks.
“While this recent order from the bookstore is a very exciting victory, we’d love to see the order sizes increase, which will be dependent upon the success of Alta Gracia sales,” Wiklund said. “Right now our efforts as a USAS and AG coalition are focused on raising awareness about labor issues and promoting the AG brand, so that other initiatives can grow from this starting off point.”
Wiklund believes that students have very valuable leverage power over the institutions which they attend, and that the issues of labor rights addressed by Alta Gracia should not be limited to the student population, but should also include alumni, professors, university affiliates and community members.
“As awareness with regards to exploitative labor practices grows, our only hope in correcting the industry infrastructure lies in community organizing and the outlook of global solidarity,” Wiklund said.
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