“No-Sweat” Factory in Dominican Republic Focuses on Worker Safety

A training activity at AltaGracia. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Velazquez)

Workers at AltaGracia completing a training activity. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Velazquez)

A group photo of the trainers and workers. (Photo courtesy of Valeria Velazquez)

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LOHP program coordinator Valeria Velazquez and Garrett Brown, SPH alumni and COEH advisory committee member, travelled in June to the Dominican Republic to conduct training and safety inspections at AltaGracia, a groundbreaking “no-sweat” garment factory that produces hooded sweatshirts and t-shirts for the US university apparel market.

The facility now employs 130 workers and has plans to expand further in fall 2010 to fulfill production orders for its niche customer — socially conscious students pouring into university classrooms across the country.  In July, the factory was profiled in the New York Times.

AltaGracia is a success story made possible by the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a non-governmental labor monitoring organization from Washington, DC. Funded by over 185 US universities and other “no-sweat” purchasing organizations, WRC's purpose is to combat sweatshops and to ensure companies that produce logo clothing also protect worker rights.

The factory owner, South Carolina-based Knights Apparel, pays workers approximately $2.83 per hour, or three times the prevailing rate offered at other “free trade zone” garment factories in the Dominion Republic, according to Brown, a compliance safety and health officer for Cal/OSHA.

“I feel proud to be part of this change,” an employee told him. “We are going to prove that we can, in fact, work in a free trade zone and earn a living wage.”

Velazquez and Brown were part of an occupational health and safety (OHS) team organized by the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, which Brown coordinates. Their goal at AltaGracia was to disseminate best practices and build institutional capacity for OHS. Mariano Kramer, a retired senior safety engineer from Cal/OSHA who previously coordinated the agency's sweatshop sweeps in Los Angeles, accompanied Brown on the OHS team's first site visit in February as well as the second visit in June. Knights Apparel paid lodging and travel costs for both site visits.

The team spotted hazards during the inspections of the new facility: electrical issues, ergonomic risks associated with repetitive machine work, and exposure to “spot remover” solvents and airborne cotton dust. Another concern was heat stress — a problem in tropical factories without air conditioning.

Knights Apparel and the employee union dealt rapidly with these issues. “A refreshing change from many garment operations,” noted Brown.

For example, plant management installed a local exhaust system to remove chemical vapors, replaced solvents with less toxic alternatives, changed housekeeping procedures to reduce dust, installed additional roof fans to lower heat within the factory and mandated water breaks during periods of high temperature.

Velazquez led a 3-hour class on the basics of ergonomics and how to run an effective health and safety committee during the June site visit. “We held the class on a Friday when work usually stops at 1:00 p.m., but employees chose to stay until 5:00 p.m. to take part in the training,” said Velazquez.

Her Spanish-language curriculum for the class of 30 was based on Worker Occupational Safety and Health (WOSH) Specialist Training — a program designed for employees with leadership roles in promoting health and safety in their workplace. The materials are funded by the California Commission on Health and Safety and Workers Compensation.

“What is exciting at AltaGracia is that the workers are incredibly dedicated to a sustainable model of employment,” said Velazquez, who plans on keeping in touch with their training needs.

She was impressed by their initiative to make workplace health and safety a priority. “It's hard to know if the seeds you plant will come to fruition, but they have a lot of incentive to make this work.”

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