We entered an airy, light-filled, breezy factory on the morning of September 9, 2011. The workers were singing along to the radio and, in general, looked healthy and happy. This was not a typical clothing factory in a developing country; The Alta Gracia Project is a for-profit company that works to provide their employees with a “living wage.” A “living wage” is often hard to come by in the Dominican Republic where 41% of the population falls under the poverty line. The minimum wage (adjusted to US dollars) is $200 a month here while the living wage is $600 a month (Interamerican Development Bank lecture). Alta Gracia pays their employees 350% of the local wage; this salary allows workers to take care of basic human needs such as clean water, food, and shelter as well as allowing them outside expenditures like providing their children with higher education. The Alta Gracia factory, also, ensures a comfortable workspace, pays for employee’s chosen health care, and allows them to form unions. The project, thus far, has been a great success; Alta Gracia is able to provide all these benefits to their employees while still making a profit. The company sells their line to 185 colleges and universities around the United States as well as some major retail stores. A sense of elation swept over me when I discovered how principled and prosperous this project has become. One rarely finds a company that can maintain their lucratively while simultaneously preserving such a holistic morality.
In the midst of my excitement, the manager of the factory and our guide began to explain more about the business model of the project. Alta Gracia sells their clothing lines to Knight; Knight acts as a middleman and sells those clothes to universities, colleges, Barnes & Nobles, and even to Wal-Mart. Yet, something irked me when I heard this, but I was not quite sure what. As I traced the progression these clothes make from their fair-trade factory to Knight to Wal-Mart, I began to see a conundrum. I found it so fantastic that the factory had such a positive impact on the lives of their employees in the Dominican Republic, yet the company was making a profit off a United States’ company (Wal-Mart) that blatantly exploits their workers according to Barbara Ehrenreich’s sociological study published in Nickel and Dimed and the current Supreme Court consideration about Wal-Mart’s gender discrimination (article published in NYTimes March 27, 2011). At first it struck me as ironic that we (the United States) encourages workers’ rights and dignity, and yet the snag in the process of fair-trade was actually on our own end. Someone posed the question, “Isn’t this the lesser of two evils though?”
I could not wrap my brain around the idea of a “lesser of two evils” though. I am an idealist in many ways; I do not believe there should have to be a choice between two evils at all. Why is a country like the United States, a developed nation, a democratic state, a world power, a land that promises “freedom and justice for all” not the shining example of workers’ rights? We could be at the forefront of workers’ rights; we have the resources, the history, and freedoms of speech yet are we ignoring our own problems in our own country. I do not blame Alta Gracia for selling their products to Knight, and I do not blame Knight for selling them to Wal-Mart: this is the premise of an international economy. Yet, I place culpability in the hands of the U.S. market. When there is international trade or even local consumers, I believe no one should have to worry about how the company treats their workers because it should be a given that United States’ companies uphold a certain standard.
Taking this concept one step further, what if workers’ rights is just a micro example of the plights in our own country? Now, it might seem obvious that there are looming problems in the United States’ system that need attention, but are we giving these issues enough attention?
Now here is the sticky part: I, myself, am in the Dominican Republic right at this very moment learning about international development and I am guilty of not remaining in the United States to campaign for better workers’ rights. Yet logically my argument should lead me to conclude that I should be in the United States helping in my own backyard, my own hometown, my own state, or even just within my own country? The only answer I have ever received to this question was Elaine Acacio’s, the CIEE Service – Learning Director. She posed a question right back; do you want to be here?