Union Made

story by Joseph Moore | photos by Nickolai Hammar  

            Aracelis Upia Montero once faced down soldiers bearing automatic weapons. They threatened to launch tear gas canisters through the windows of the factory she occupied with more than a dozen other workers. Lucretia Sanchez once punched her manager in the face on the factory floor. He had elbowed a pregnant co-worker in the stomach. Maritza Vargas had to send four of her five children away to live with extended family because she couldn't afford to feed them all. She made 33 cents an hour sewing Nike baseball caps.

            These women now make more than three times the average salary of garment workers in the Dominican Republic. They are all members of a democratic union. Aracelis − whose nickname is "Kuky"− has built an addition to her home that she rents out to supplement her income. She has plans to add a second story in the near future. Lucretia's daughter will soon enroll in the university to study architectural design. All five of Maritza's children are now living with her under one roof. She has learned how to use a computer.

            The story of these three women makes no sense in the landscape of the global garment industry where workers − mostly female − often labor long hours in poor conditions for very little pay. They struggle to feed and clothe their children on meager salaries. Many women face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers, who operate with impunity under weak labor laws. Governments in developing countries like the Dominican Republic use lax regulatory regimes and pitifully low minimum wages, coupled with subsidies and tax breaks, to attract the business of multinational corporations. Apparel brands such as Adidas and Nike contract with manufacturers in these countries to keep costs low and ensure that profits remain high. Consumers in the West continue to buy these brands, unaware of the sweatshop conditions in which they are made. This is the logic of the global garment industry.

            But in a mountain town of 80,000 people, 40 kilometers Northwest of the Dominican capital, a group of women stood up in defiance of this logic. After years of exploitation and abuse, they refused to take it anymore and − reaching out to allies in the United States − initiated a project that would turn the industry's logic on its head. A factory that pays its workers a living wage, allowing them to provide their families with nutritious food, housing, healthcare and education for their children. A factory that has the potential to become a model for the garment business globally, but only if consumers in the U.S. and other developed countries decide that the treatment of the people who make their clothing matters.


            Kuky and about 20 of her coworkers lounged on scraps of cardboard on the factory floor, telling jokes and exchanging personal stories throughout the night. They drank water and ate toasted bread delivered by a compañero on the outside. The workers continued their protest into the morning, refusing to attend to their sewing machines at the regularly scheduled start of their shift. They vowed not to leave until they were paid the money the factory owed them for one month's labor.

             Marco Betancourt was the owner of the MG Apparel factory in Hato Nuevo − an industrial park with 149,000 square feet of warehouse space situated on the outskirts of Santo Domingo. Kuky remembers him as a tall, handsome, overweight Columbian with powerful political connections and a penchant for verbally abusing his employees. She worked for him for three years, operating a machine that sewed waistbands on the women's underwear the factory manufactured. Often, she recalls, Marco would not pay his employees for up to two weeks at a time.

            "He was terrible," she said. "He was the type of person who would, for example, on pay day it was nothing for him to come out and say, 'Hey, you're not getting paid today. There's no money today.'"

            After Marco refused to pay his employees the 10,000 pesos, about $238 US, they had earned for the completion of a one-month contract in 2006, the garment workers decided to occupy the factory. The sit-in lasted over night and into the morning when Marco arrived with five or six soldiers dressed in Dominican military fatigues and armed with automatic rifles. The soldiers threatened to use teargas against the occupying workers if they did not immediately vacate the factory.

            "It's not legal for you to be here," one of the soldiers shouted. "You need to leave now."

            Afraid and uncertain of their labor rights, the workers complied. They never received their money and, soon after, Marco closed that factory and relocated farther North to Santiago.

            "The lesson I learned is that if you don't know what your rights are, you are nothing," Kuky said.

            Kuky recounts the hardships she faced as a single mother of five working 12 hours a day for little pay, her broad smile never fading. It pushes her rounded cheeks to the edges of her face.

            "I had to wake up very early in the morning because I had to be at the highway by 5:45 am," she said. "There was a guy who drove an 18-wheeler, he gave me a ride to the town that was one kilometer away from the factory. He dropped me off there and I walked to my work station."

            In the Dominican Republic a gallon of gas cost about $6 U.S. and the resulting high transportation costs often present a steep obstacle to factory workers. Workers like Kuky spend an average of 30 to 40 percent of their income on transportation, according to Massiel Figuero, a labor lawyer with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center in Santo Domingo. Many of them don't make enough to pay for a bus or a taxi to and from the factory every day, and owning a car or even a motor scooter is unthinkable. Instead, workers must wake up long before the start of their shift to walk or hitch rides with generous strangers. Sometimes they don't make it home until several hours after their shift has ended.

            "Sometimes I ended my shift at 4:30 and didn't get home until 8 pm," Kuky said. "I had no time to take care of my children or clean my house. That made me feel very bad."

            Waiting for a ride on the shoulder of a dark highway, anxious to get home to her children, Kuky never imagined she would one day own a motor scooter and be saving up for a car.

            The minimum wage in the Dominican Republic is 9,000 pesos per month, about $212 U.S., but in certain specially-designated industrial zones, the minimum wage is less − 7,000 pesos per month. Companies located within these areas, called free-trade zones (FTZs), are exempt from paying customs tariffs on imported raw materials and exported manufactured goods. They also benefit from the lower minimum wage requirement and exemptions from some labor and environmental regulations. For developing countries with struggling economies, FTZs offer an influx of jobs and the potential for rapid industrialization. For multinationals, they offer cheap labor, low taxes and weak regulations.

            The free-trade zone system in the Dominican Republic started in 1969 with the arrival of a few U.S. textile companies, according to economist Felipe Santos, who works as a freelance consultant for several Dominican labor unions. But it wasn't until the decade between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s that government policies, including currency devaluation and the construction of industrial parks around the country, opened the floodgates to foreign investment.

            Forty-eight free-trade zone parks operated in the Dominican Republic as of 2010, according to data from the Dominican National Free Zones Council, a group composed of representatives from FTZ industries. Within these parks, 555 companies employed more than 120,000 workers. Exports from Dominican free-trade zones totaled more than $4 billion US in 2010, with textiles making up about one-quarter of that number, or $965 million. 

            The garment industry dominates the Dominican free-trade zone sector, manufacturing clothing for Western brands like Levi Strauss and Fruit of the Loom, but textile companies were even more prevalent during the earlier period of FTZ development in the 1970s and 80s. Female workers were greatly preferred over men for these low-paying garment manufacturing jobs.

            "They thought women would be easier to control," said Ignacio Hernandez, Secretary General of the Dominican Federation of Free Trade Zone Unions, or Fedotrazonas. "They would work harder, they would not unionize, and also they would be more skilled at sewing."

            Many of these women were single mothers and factory management believed they would work longer hours to support their children, he said. In 1988, Hernandez presented a report to the Dominican Congress highlighting cases of abuse in free-trade zone factories, including physical assaults by management against female employees, spitting on workers and threatening language. In one case, a pregnant woman was beaten so badly she miscarried, according to Hernandez. He said instances of this level of brutality became more rare after the labor code was strengthened in 1992, but abuses persist.

            Lucretia's fist landed hard on the side of her manager's face. Later, in court, he would claim the blow left a gash that required 13 stitches.

            "But he's right here and I don't see the stitches," she remembers thinking to herself.

            The incident started when a group of pregnant garment workers at Loadway Enterprises Inc. in Bonao approached the manager to demand unpaid medical assistance. The women asked Lucretia, a well-known union leader in the factory, to help make their case. The manager, who was leaving his office at that moment, was not interested in listening to the women's complaint. When they persisted in their appeal, he became enraged and elbowed one of the pregnant women in the stomach, Lucretia recalls.

            Jumping to the defense of her coworker, 5-foot-2 Lucretia pushed her manager back. He then came after her.

            The general secretary of the union grabbed the manager from behind to prevent him from attacking Lucretia. Several times he broke free and managed to push Lucretia down before being wrapped up from behind again. Aware of the commotion near the front office, workers had stopped working and were standing up from their sewing stations to get a better look. The last time the manager broke free Lucretia was ready for him. She cocked back her fist and connected with his face before he could touch her.

            This time he called the police.

            At her trial the judge told Lucretia that she was guilty of assault. Unable to post the 15,000 peso bail, she was forced to spend two days in jail. The manager faced no consequences.

            That was six years ago. Lucretia compares her experience at that factory to her current situation at the Alta Gracia factory.

            "I have been working at Alta Gracia since the beginning and I have never seen a worker being mistreated," she said. "Alta Gracia is more like a family. We treat each other like a family."

            Figuero, the labor lawyer, identified two major issues currently facing women working in free-trade zones − low salary and sexual discrimination. Female workers in Dominican FTZs make 19 percent less on average than their male counterparts. During the hiring process women are often forced to undergo a pregnancy test, Figuero said. Pregnant women are not hired. More than 40 percent of women surveyed in three FTZs around the country had experienced sexual harassment in the factory, according to a 2003 report by the International Labor Rights Forum, a U.S.-based non-profit.

            Eulogia Familia is the general secretary of gender politics for the Dominican National Confederation of Trade Unions. She conducts sexual harassment training workshops in free-trade zone factories.

            "When women are sexually harassed or abused, they don't often say anything because they don't want it out because they're afraid," she said. "A situation that starts in the work environment may end in violence in the family because their boyfriends or husbands blame them for the harassment."

            Familia sees the problem of sexual harassment as endemic to Dominican society. "This doesn't just occur in the labor sector, this is a problem in our society," she said. "Many male workers don't know what sexual harassment is because it's so ingrained in Dominican culture."

            She says the government needs to do more to protect women working in free-trade zones.

            Figuero says free-trade zones are not a benefit to the Dominican Republic because of this abuse coupled with low pay and poor working conditions. "In my opinion, it would be better if free trade zones left our country," she said.

            Santos, the economist, believes FTZs have granted economic independence to many Dominican women, who had few opportunities for employment previously. But he says that FTZs have also had a negative impact on some Dominican families because they often force single mothers to send their children away to be cared for by a relative while the mother works in the factory. Even in cases where the woman is married and living with her husband, the responsibilities of childcare and domestic labor still fall squarely on her shoulders, regardless of how many hours she works outside the home..

            Maritza Vargas worked for several years at the BJ&B garment factory in Villa Altagracia's free-trade zone, a gated industrial park surrounded by lush, green mountains 25 miles Northwest of Santo Domingo. There, she earned about 50 cents an hour sewing baseball caps for brands such as Adidas and Nike. Nike brought in revenues of $25.3 billion in 2013, $2.5 billion of which was profit, according to the company's financial statement. Nike CEO Mark Parker received compensation − including salary, stock options and incentive pay − totaling $15.4 million in 2013. For Vargas, the pay was so little she could not send her five children to school because she couldn't afford supplies or clothing. She could not even afford to give them proper food. Eventually she was forced to send three of her children away to live with extended family.

            "That made me feel like a bad mother," Vargas said. "It made me feel useless."

            Along with her domestic struggles, Vargas faced abuse inside the factory. One day she came to work and noticed a liquid being sprayed on the roof of the factory. The workers were told it was a chemical to protect the roof from humidity and that it was harmless. As the day wore on, workers began to get sick, many were vomiting and fainting. Despite this, BJ&B management refused to allow workers to leave their sewing machines. When managers began feeling sick, the factory was finally evacuated.

            "That was the drop that spilled the cup," Vargas said.

            Shortly after that incident, several workers at BJ&B attempted to organized a union in 2001 but were fired by the company. It was not until the Workers' Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring group based in the U.S., put pressure on Nike and Adidas that the fired workers were finally reinstated several months later. In the face of persistent worker demands, BJ&B formally recognized the union in 2002 and signed the first collective bargaining agreement in any Dominican FTZ to offer wages above the legal minimum. Almost immediately after the agreement was signed, BJ&B's parent company began reducing its workforce and shifting production to other factories in countries like Bangladesh. By 2004, the company had slashed more than 1,200 jobs, reducing the workforce by 63 percent, according to the Workers' Rights Consortium. The company permanently shut down its operations in Villa Altagracia in 2007.

            Following the closing of the factory, a group of five women from the BJ&B union, including Vargas, launched a campaign to reverse the closure. They partnered with Fedotrazonas, the Workers' Rights Consortium and United Students Against Sweatshops, a U.S.-based student organization pressuring universities to adopt codes of conduct for factories that produced their licensed merchandise. Together they were able to convince representatives from BJ&B and Nike to meet with union officials in Santo Domingo for a conference in 2007. Nike claimed it was not responsible for the actions of its contractor and refused to offer help.

            After it became apparent that BJ&B was not coming back, the five women and their partner organizations in the U.S. shifted strategies and focused on bringing a new company to Villa Altagracia. "We made a commitment to fight for another brand to commit to bringing business to Villa," Vargas said.

            As part of this process, the Workers' Rights Consortium conducted a living wage assessment to determine the level of salary necessary to provide basic goods for a family of four in the Dominican Republic like food, clothing, housing, healthcare, childcare, etc. The number they came up with was $115 US per week, 3.4 times the country's legal minimum salary of $34 per week. This would be what Dominicans factory workers refer to as a salario digno − a "dignified salary."

            Recognizing a potential market on U.S. campuses for humanely-made clothing, Knights Apparel, a leading apparel supplier based in Spartanburg, S.C., decided to open a new factory in Villa Altagracia in 2010. The factory, named Alta Gracia after the town, would make college-logo T-shirts and sweatshirts for American universities while paying its workers a living wage. Knights also agreed to provide a safe and comfortable working environment for its 130 employees, 62 percent of whom are women, mostly in their 20s and 30s. The workers also receive benefits like paid sick leave and their right to form a union is fully recognized. The factory would be subject to regular inspections by the Workers' Rights Consortium to guarantee adherence to these commitments.

            One month before the factory began interviewing for positions, Vargas received a phone call from a union official at Fedotrazonas informing her of the victory. "I was jumping with joy," she said. "I was going to have a job that would allow me to bring my family back together. I could live in Villa. The heavens opened up to me." Vargas would become the general secretary of the union at the new factory, Sitralpro.

            The Knights factory in Villa Altagracia occupies only a small area of the building that housed the much larger BJ&B operation, although the differences between the two factories extend much further. Kuky sits comfortably in her ergonomic chair, rocking back and forth to bachata music as she feeds pieces of bright pink fabric through her machine. A few work stations over, Lucretia talks excitedly to a group of coworkers. Fans positioned all around the factory floor keep the place relatively cool during the scorching Dominican afternoon. Bulletin boards display notices informing workers of their rights. Several fire exits and extinguishers are prominently identified throughout the factory. Maritza works at her desk in the Sitralpro union office, located right on the factory floor.

            But the starkest changes cannot be seen inside the factory.

            Maritza can now afford to keep all of her children at home and send them to school. "In comparison I can say that I am rich now," she said. "I've had a lot of personal growth opportunities. Now, I know how to use a computer. My children have a future."

            Kuky does her laundry in an electric washing machine in front of her house. She is the envy of her neighbors. Her five-year-old son sits at the living room table, playing memory games on a laptop computer. She shows off the one-story, concrete-built addition to her home. Strips of rebar protrude from the roof in anticipation of the second story she will soon add. Upia no longer has to hitch rides to work.

            "Now I can spend more time with my family, which I didn't have the time for," she said. "We have dinner together now which we couldn't do before. We go out together and go to the store together. Even just watching T.V. Now we can go to bed a watch T.V. together."

              Lucretia Sanchez, the woman who was arrested for defending a pregnant coworker, is now an operator at Alta Gracia. She said the factory has completely transformed her life. "Now I don't have the stress of worrying about the needs that my family has that I can't afford," she said. "By the end of the year my daughter will be enrolled in the university. She wants to study architectural design. Before, I thought my children had no chance at all. Not even in my dreams could I think of sending her to high school."

            But not everyone is equally enthused about this nascent experiment in Villa Altagracia. Luis Abreu Gautreux is a sub-director general of labor at the Dominican Ministry of Labor. He does not believe the Alta Gracia model can be replicated in other free-trade zones. "I don't think it's possible," he said. "Because this sector of the free-trade zone system is competing with companies in other countries. We have to be very careful about what we demand. We need these companies and we don't want them to leave." Gautreux believes FTZs have benefited the Dominican Republic by bringing job opportunities, regardless of how little these jobs pay. If that pay were to increase, he believes companies would simply move to Asian countries where the minimum wage remains low.

            Alta Gracia itself has yet to turn a profit. The factory's operations are being subsidized with revenue from Knight's other brands − manufactured in countries like Bangladesh. Workers in those countries do not make a living wage, or enjoy most of the same benefits as the employees at Alta Gracia. United Students Against Sweatshops is determined to make Alta Gracia a viable business model for garment manufacturers throughout the developing world. To do this, they are raising awareness of the brand on college campuses through campaigns to convince university bookstores to buy more Alta Gracia products.

            Dylan Roberson is the co-president of the United Students Against Sweatshops chapter at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Her organization is petitioning the university bookstore to increase its supply of Alta Gracia products to $250,000, with higher visibility in the store and better promotion.

            "Alta Gracia really is the only working model of a living wage factory," Roberson said. "It was created to give Alta Gracia workers in the Dominican a better life, but the broader aspect of it is making sure that that model can become the model for all other factories, so ultimately we can eliminate sweatshops all over the world."

            Roberson says the key to making this happen is educating consumers. "Your clothes should not kill people," she said.

            For some garment workers in the Dominican Republic, those words echo a grim reality. When Genaro Rodriquez attempted to form a union at the M Group garment factory in Santiago's free-trade zone, he found Post-its left next to his sewing machine by management threatening to cut him up into pieces and dump him in a garbage bag. One morning in 2001, Rodriquez, along with four other organizers, was ambushed 15 feet from the factory − where Levi jeans are made − by a group of armed men. One of the organizers was also armed and a shootout ensued. An attacker was shot twice in the chest but lived. Rodriquez survived two more assassination attempts before successfully forming a union in 2003.

            Vargas agrees that informed consumers can make the difference."They should know about the brands, where they are manufactured and what the conditions are like in the factories," she said.

            But she believes the ultimate responsibility for informing the consumer rests with the brands. "Brands say one thing but the reality is completely different," she said. "All they want is money. All they care about is money."