Maritza Vargas, former BJ&B worker and President of SITRALPRO, Alta Gracia union
I was born and raised in Villa Altagracia, a town 45 minutes outside of the capital of Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic. In Villa Altagracia, there used to be a factory named BJ&B, which had 3,500 garment workers that used to sew caps for your universities for major brands like Nike, Reebok, the Gap, and others. In BJ&B, we were subject to many labor rights violations, including verbal harassment, disrespect from factory managers, poverty wages, and high production quotas. When the factory would receive higher orders, the managers would lock the doors to the factory and not let anyone leave. In fact, one of my coworkers had to crawl over a fence to escape from the factory, because her children were so young and were left at home alone without anyone to care for them. Factory supervisors would regularly walk around and swear at us. We would stack dozens of caps together, and when the supervisors would lose their temper, they would sweep all of them together and throw them onto the floor, forcing us to bend over to pick them all up. We were also subject to physical abuse, and in one case, the factory manager kicked a pregnant worker off her chair, and she lost her baby.
The workers decided that we wouldn’t take the abuse anymore and we decided to organize into a union. When we officially registered and announced to the factory that we had established a union, they immediately fired all of the union leaders and banned us from the factory. At that time, we contacted our union federation, Fedotrazonas, and with the support of the WRC investigation and USAS student campaigning against Nike and Reebok in the North, we were able to get our jobs back – not working inside the factory, but instead, picking up trash outside of the factory. Again, we sent a complaint to the WRC who did an investigation and with more pressure on the brands from USAS organizing, we were able to get our original posts back inside of the factory. We started a massive organizing campaign, affiliating more and more workers, and we eventually negotiated the strongest collective bargaining agreement in the entire Caribbean region.
We enjoyed union rights in BJ&B, although brands immediately started pulling out their orders and moving them to countries with cheaper labor, like Bangladesh. After six years, we came to the factory one morning at 8 am on February 17, and the factory management announced the factory was to close down, leaving all of us unemployed. We were devastated, as the majority of workers were single mothers and also pregnant women. We pleaded with brands to keep their orders in the factory and to keep it open, but they negated any responsibility for us. With the support of the WRC and USAS, we were able to get Yupoong, the contractor, to pay 6 months of severance to pregnant workers and 3 months pay to all other workers.
After BJ&B shut down, Villa Altagracia became a ghost town. Parents had to migrate out of Villa Altagracia to look for work just to put food on the table for their children, many families were broken apart, and workers had to take their kids out of school because they could no longer afford to pay for education. Some workers migrated illegally to the U.S. and some attempted to immigrate to Spain, only to be deceived by traffickers who left them in Turkey to be raped, abused, and abandoned. The closure of BJ&B had a devastating impact on the local community too, as nearby shops and restaurants were forced to close.
At that time, the WRC did another investigation in Villa Altagracia to document how former BJ&B workers were living. They found that children were living alone in Villa Altagracia, uneducated and malnutritioned, as their parents were working in cities far away. At that time, we began to envision a project with the WRC and USAS in which we could bring work back to Villa Altagracia – dignified work, where workers could earn a living wage that we calculated in collaboration with the WRC.
Knights Apparel was willing to make the investment to re-open BJ&B, and that’s how the Alta Gracia project was born. On February 17 – the same day BJ&B had closed – three years later – the Alta Gracia factory re-opened, respecting our union and paying us living wages, more than three and a half times what other free trade zone workers earn. Workers throughout the country want to work in Alta Gracia. We are treated with respect, don’t have supervisors, and our union is taken into account in all major factory decisions. Every morning, before work, we reflect on what we accomplished the day before and what needs improvement, and we come up with a plan to improve our production together.
With this living wage, my coworkers and I have been able to rebuild our houses, send our kids back to school, and even study ourselves. In my case, I have been able to move into a much larger house where each of my kids has their own room – before, we lived as six people in a tw0-room house. My son has been able to buy a computer for the first time and study computer systems. I’m able to finally study English. Some of my co-workers are even able to send their children to university, which had been previously unheard of. The first thing I did after receiving my first paycheck was take my kids to the grocery store, and we are now able to buy nutritious food.
We are a family inside of the factory; we’re planning for our upcoming Christmas party and recently had a Bachata contest. In other factories, we were forced to all sit cramped on a bench while working on the assembly line. Now, we have ergonomic chairs and much more space with ventilation and air conditioning.
BJ&B had 3,500 workers; Alta Gracia now has 133. This new job has transformed my life and the lives of all my co-workers and has the best working conditions in the entire country – where we have a strong union to represent the workers and are also paid a living wage. Our government has done little to nothing to support the rights of workers, and student organizing has been crucial in winning union rights and better working conditions.
Now, the survival and expansion of my factory depends on whether students are willing to demonstrate that they would rather buy Alta Gracia apparel made under just working conditions where workers are actually treated with respect over sweatshop-made clothing. Workers in the Dominican Republic are depending on consumers in the U.S. to buy this product, and I urge students to get involved with USAS campaigns to continue fighting for Alta Gracia conditions around the world.