By Lily Vesel
Hanoi Soa and Elba Nurys Olivo, employees at Alta Gracia, the only garment company in the developing world independently certified for paying its workers a living wage, spoke about their experiences working in a fair-trade environment before a group of Fordham students in the John Mulcahy Hall auditorium on Fordham’s Rose Hill campus.
This speaking event was organized by Fordham’s Students for Fair Trade Club. According to Kinza Mian, an executive board member, its mission is to “educate community about what fair trade means and why it should be important to them.”
Soa and Olivo are on a mission to promote the fair trade workplace model. They speak at schools across the state to gather support for a work environment that allows its workers to live with dignity.
Alta Gracia was founded in 2010, supplying universities such as Fordham with college apparel. It opened shortly after a garment sweatshop factory called BJ&B closed in the same community of Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic.
The company provides health care, insurance and retirement pensions for its 144 current employees. Along with these resources, it provides a safe and caring work environment for its workers.
Elaborating on what makes the fair trade work environment at Alta Gracia so special, Soa explained that Alta Gracia pays its workers about three times more than the Dominican minimum wage of $160 per month for garment workers. “The heart of Alta Gracia’s mission is to give its workers the opportunity to live a life of dignity,” Soa said. “Through caring about its workers and their well-being, Alta Gracia provides them with this.”
Soa highlighted the necessity for implementing fair trade work environments in the Dominican Republic.
“The cost of living in the DR is about $450 a month for a family of four,” he said, “so Dominican workers are receiving three times less than what is necessary to afford their cost of living.”
According to Soa, workers who have not signed a contract earn even less, sometimes being forced to survive on $50 a month, 10 times less than what is needed to afford the cost of living.
“Misery is a powerful enemy of human dignity,” he said. “We need people to be self-sufficient, to have the resources to take care of their most basic needs.”
For Soa, mistreatment in the sweatshop factory environment is personal.
He retold his own personal history working for a factory of 600 people that only had two bathrooms.
“The line was sometimes so long that I had decide whether to get water or go to the bathroom because my 15 minute break was not enough to do both,” he said. “At Alta Gracia, we don’t have to wait for breaks to get water or use the bathroom,” he added.
Responding to a student’s question about how Alta Gracia can compete with other sweatshops while still providing for their workers, Soa had a ready answer. “Alta Gracia is not charity,” he clarified, “it’s a model and sustainable business that has sustained for five years.”
“We’ve gone through phase one, demonstrating that it is possible to implement such a model,” he added.
He explained how organizations such as Students Against Sweatshops are pushing to implement a “sweat-free bookstore program.” The idea behind this mission is to get bookstores on college campuses to source at least 30 percent of its products from Alta Gracia or other fair trade factories.
Olivo offered personal anecdotes of her experiences in the BJ&B sweatshop work environment. She contrasted them with her experience at Alta Gracia, where she has been working since 2010.
“My job is related to sewing sleeves and working on wrists of sweaters and the colors of t-shirts,” she said in Spanish, Soa translating to English for her. “Thanks to the pay I receive now at Alta Gracia, I’ve been given the opportunity to provide my family with food, education, and medical insurance.”
She explained how she could not provide for her family while working at BJ&B, where she was paid the equivalent of around $120 a month. Illustrating to what extent BJ&B abused its workers, she described an incident where known toxic chemicals used to seal the factory ceilings while the workers were at work, caused the pregnant employees to have to be rushed to the hospital.
For Kinza, hearing first-hand from workers about how a fair trade environment has had the ultimate affect.
“Hearing about the experiences of people from Alta Gracia personifies everything that you read in the paper — everything that you see in a textbook,” he said. “It is real, it affects real people and when you see those people, it grounds you in a way that simply studying fair trade or other such concepts never will.”