Event shows need for greater awareness of worker’s rights at UT-Austin

Travis Knoll

Last week, Solidarity Ignite, an advocacy group promoting fair working conditions in factories, hosted an event to highlight the benefits of the University Co-op’s new partnership with Alta Gracia, a factory in the Dominican Republic that provides its workers with health benefits and a living wage.

Members of other groups, such as Make UT Sweatshop Free Coalition, which last September occupied UT President William Powers Jr’s office, also attended the event.

 UT ended up joining the students’ preferred group, the Workers’ Rights Consortium, which independently monitors working conditions in factories worldwide. The University Co-op pledged to invest $35,000 in Alta Gracia products. This investment was well short of students’ demands of $250,000, but was significant. Similar investments have paid off at universities across the country, such as Duke, which effectively leveraged Alta Gracia’s reputation on workers’ rights to make the brand competitive at their campus store. However, the Co-op’s  limited investment highlights the university community’s financial limitations and reminds anti-sweatshop movements that activism cannot start and end with the university or overseas philanthropy. Solidarity Ignite, therefore, brought Alta Gracia workers Yenny Perez and Maritza Vargas to speak to students and  to put  hard-to-ignore faces on the struggle for dignified work.

The speakers pushed listeners to dispense with easy comparisons and to challenge students to go beyond one hour events. The workers encouraged students to be active in preventing workplace tragedies.

Students wondering about the local costs of oversight lapses need only to look to West, Texas, where a nighttime fertilizer plant explosion killed 15 first responders  and injured over 150, although no workers were killed.

Perez spoke about the years of struggle to bring a factory like Alta Gracia to the Dominican Republic, and of “before” Alta Gracia, at a BJ&B garment factory when many workers were beaten on the job and many of the organizations charged with monitoring the shops were “bought off.” According to Perez, monitoring organizations would ask workers about their conditions with management looking on. Perez firmly believes that Alta Gracia is different, citing Alta Gracia’s three-month paid maternal leave and the wages offered, which are three times higher than other factories in the country.

“It’s like the difference between heaven and Earth,” she said. Despite this praise, she reiterated that her intention was not to sell the audience on the Alta Gracia factory but to advocate for awareness in the U.S. She urged UT students to visit Alta Gracia and other factories in Dominican Republic.

Vargas discussed ongoing challenges, saying that workers were “counting on students” to take their activism beyond graduation. She conceded that the workers will, for now, focus on increasing investments on university campuses (more than 400 universities now support the factory). She argued creating a dilemma between the ability to stay in business and the ability to pay workers a decent wage is misleading because workers “make businesses run.”

I thought of the August protests to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers here in the U.S. and asked her opinion of that national conversation. I was expecting a tacit support for that struggle, but her answer surprised and challenged me. She contended that the minimum wage debate distracted from structural inequality and said that employers use the minimum wage to depress salaries for workers. She encouraged students to “turn this mentality on its head” and move to a fight for a “dignified” wage. Her message was clear: Mere idealistic slogans, easy mainstream solutions and pity will not help workers.

All in all, the workers’ presence forced those listening to pay attention to where UT apparel comes from and to rethink global paradigms. With growing inequality in the U.S., our raised voices in the Dominican Republic cannot be silent about exploitation at home.

Knoll is a first-year master’s student in Latin American studies from Dallas.