Alta Gracia’s Knights Apparel
Lifting workers from poverty
By Dawn Crim
I am fortunate to work at a university that is positively impacting the
global economy and changing people’s lives. In early March, I
returned from the Dominican Republic where I spent five days
visiting factories, meeting with apparel workers and non-
governmental organizations on behalf of the University of Wisconsin-
Madison. I went to observe first-hand a new business model in the
apparel industry that is proving to be life changing.
One year ago, Knights Apparel opened a factory in Alta Gracia,
Dominique Republic that pays three times the country’s minimum
wage, with a unionized workforce as a way to respond to consumer
demand for socially responsible collegiate apparel. The clothing is
attractive, high quality, and each garment bears a tag, explaining the
factory’s story. The clothing is being sold in over 350 College
Bookstores around the country. In six short months, the factory’s
workforce of about 130 workers have been able to lift themselves
from poverty and make a better life for their family and community.
This visit of celebrating and supporting the strides workers have made in the global apparel industry by opening this factory
with a unionized workforce that has negotiated the best collective bargaining agreement in the country, juxtaposed against the
assault on collective bargaining rights earned by employees in Wisconsin, was ironic. Many times during the trip I found myself
thinking about how peculiar the situation was and hoped that a positive solution could be reached back in Wisconsin.
Alta Gracia is a community about one hour to the west of Santa Domingo. It is the site of a formerly thriving Free Trade Zone
which at its height operated six large apparel factories with over 3,000 workers. During its heyday, one of the factories in the
free trade zone, BJ &B, had made considerable strides in improving workplace conditions which included the formation of a
union. In an effort to recognize and reward the strides made by the BJ & B workforce, the Alta Gracia factory adopted a hiring
practice that instituted priority hiring for former BJ & B factory workers. This policy has resulted in two-thirds of the workforce
being former BJ & B factory workers.
During my visit I had the opportunity to see the community of Alta Gracia where the factory owners live. Maya Angelou’s saying
that we are more alike than we are different continues to ring true. It was Saturday morning about 10 a.m. and many people
were doing family chores, sweeping porches, washing clothes -- typical chores that I remember growing up. Since the factory
opened, there has been a transformation. New businesses have been opening up, like a grocery store and several small corner
stores. A bank is being built along the main street. But what was most impressive was how quickly people were moving from
renting homes to buying and building their own homes.
Three months ago, Santa lived with her family of five in a one-room house which shared an outhouse with three other homes.
Today, she owns a four-room home with an inside bathroom area and kitchen. Miguel grew up in a family of 10 kids, raised by
his mother. Now, he is a married father with four children of his own. He vowed one day he would purchase a home for his
mother and make a better life for his family. While growing up, his mother taught him to sew. He worked many different jobs
including sewing in apparel factories. In the living room of his home stood the sewing machine he learned to sew on. In six
months time, he purchased a one-room home for his mother with an indoor bathroom and is in the process of building his own
brick four-room home complete with an indoor bathroom and indoor plumbing. Lastly, I visited Gina’s home. Gina is married
with one biological child but also cares for her nephew. Gina was so excited by our visit she immediately went in the house
and returned smiling showing me three pay stubs from Alta Gracia saying she is planning on framing them. Prior to working at
Alta Gracia she lived in her mother’s four-room home with her family. Her family shared one bedroom while her mother had her
own room along with a living room and kitchen. In the past few months, Gina has been able to add indoor plumbing to her
mother’s home, add an indoor bathroom, purchase a new stove and hutch for her mother’s dishes. And Gina has built her own
one-room house behind her mother’s house and is adding another room so the two kids can sleep in their own room. Gina says
she is not stopping there; she has her eye on some land across the street from her mother’s home where she plans to build her
own home. In preparation for this, she showed me a pile of bricks she has purchased to build her future house. Gina says since
working in the Alta Gracia factory, she has made plans and now has a way to pay for her plans. She wants to build a home,
send her kids to private school, and to think of more things because she now has the freedom to dream.
It is great to work on an assignment that provides hope and is enabling workers around the world to dream of a better life. It is
also great to know we have found a product that we can tell our faculty, staff and students when they buy them; they are truly
making a difference in peoples’ lives. In Madison, the Alta Gracia clothing line can be found at all of the University Bookstore
locations. To learn more about Alta Gracia, I invite you to visit http://altagraciaapparel.com/.