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Can Apparel Factories Treat Workers With Dignity?

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No industry has engaged in such a lengthy period of consistent exploitation as apparel, which has basically ran sweatshops around the world for 200 years, moving whenever workers successfully win decent conditions. The apparel industry claims such conditions are a must in order for them to profit. This is absurd on a number of levels. The system needs to be radically reformed in order to force the western apparel companies to have legally responsibility for everything that goes on in the factories where they contract clothing. If they don’t like it, they can build their own factories, like other industries. Hardly a shocking idea.

But even within the current system, is overt exploitation necessary? This experimental factory in the Dominican Republic is showing the answer to that question is no:

Maritza Vargas, a 49-year-old union leader with 25 years of experience working in local factories, works a variety of jobs at the Alta Gracia factory, including sewing seams on sweatshirts and putting on labels. A regular day at the factory is nothing like what she’s experienced before, she told HuffPost. Vargas and her 150 or so colleagues are unionized. They’re not forced to work absurd hours, her overtime paychecks don’t disappear into the ether and she gets frequent breaks.

“It’s as simple as understanding that we’re human beings, not machines,” Vargas said through a translator.

In free-trade zones of the Dominican Republic, the minimum monthly wage is set at RD $7,200, or about $165 in U.S. dollars. Alta Gracia factory workers earn a monthly wage of RD $22,342, or about $514 U.S., according to numbers provided by the company’s plant manager.

36-year-old Sobeida Fortuna, who has worked in free-trade-zone garment factories for about 18 years, said she’s finally being treated with “respect” and “dignity” after getting her job at Alta Gracia.

“They would force me to work mandatory overtime hours,” she said of previous employers. “I’d work in uncomfortable chairs and positions. They would control my every movement, even monitor the times I used the bathroom or drink water.”

Still, these people need somewhere to work. Fortuna paused to think when asked what she’d be doing if she didn’t have her Alta Gracia factory job.

“We’d maybe be unemployed,” she said. “We’d maybe be working three hours away from home. We’d maybe be working at another factory with the same conditions as the previous factories. We work in those conditions because it’s all that’s around and we have a family. We have no other choice.”

Now, I would never trust anything the apparel industry says, even if the Workers Rights Consortium is approving it. After all, this is an industry designed around taking every penny in profit through suppressing labor costs. But this is a unionized operation and while the article doesn’t get into how independent this union really is, it’s obviously a vast improvement over the average Dominican sweatshop.

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