The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Garment workers discuss human rights, empower students

Maritza Vargas, Marissa Ocampo and Yenny Perez listen as Amey Kessel speaks at Monday’s event. (RYAN MILLER / The Daily Campus)
Maritza Vargas, Marissa Ocampo and Yenny Perez listen as Amey Kessel speaks at Monday’s event. (RYAN MILLER / The Daily Campus)
humanrights_RyanMiller.jpg
Maritza Vargas, Marissa Ocampo and Yenny Perez listen as Amey Kessel speaks at Monday’s event. (RYAN MILLER / The Daily Campus)

 

Cracked walls that could collapse at any moment. Unsanitary workrooms and employees tirelessly working for hours on end. These exploitative conditions are what define the industry Maritza Vargas and Yenny Perez work for.

Vargas and Perez are garment factory workers from the Dominican Republic. While the women shared many of their industry’s harsh realities to a group of students and teachers in the Owen Fine Arts building on Oct. 7, they also imparted a message of optimism. Vargas and Perez work for a place they call “a beacon of hope” — a place called Alta Gracia, the first ever living-wage college apparel factory.

“It’s really sad to think about those fathers and mothers returning home from work at night, having no way of knowing how they’re going to put food on the table and feed their kids that day because the money that they’re paid is not enough to be able to do that,” Vargas said. “At Alta Gracia, we have piece of mind when we come home because we know that what we make is enough to be able to feed our families and give them nutritious food to get by.”

Alta Gracia is an initiative that is rooted in decades of solidarity between college students and garment workers. The factory’s employees make three times the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic’s Free Trade Zone, giving employees enough to afford food, housing, health care and education. Workers are also assured top-notch health and safety conditions and are given a voice through the Democratic Workers Union.

Vargas and Perez mentioned that universities have codes of conduct that describe how workers who produce their spirit apparel should be treated, but 90 percent of factories do not make the effort to implement them.

“The codes are posted up like these beautiful plaques on the wall of the factory we used to work for, but they were kind of just cosmetic,” Vargas said. “They’d be there so that the visiting monitors would see them when they came to the factory, but they actually weren’t really followed.”

Vargas and Perez are giving this talk as part of a six-week college tour organized by the human rights organization, Solidarity Ignite. Director and organizer Amy Kessel believes in the importance and relevance of allowing the factory workers to bring light to the issues they have faced by speaking to college students face-to-face.

“No one knows what’s going on in the workplace or what workers need for a safer and healthier workplace better than the workers themselves, so hearing it from me is different from hearing it from Yenny and Maritza,” Kessel said. “The kind of leverage that students have over this kind of industry is very unique. Universities can affect this industry, so that’s why we decide to chat with students and do it face-to-face.”

The women ended the talk with one final message and one request. Perez stressed their desire to bring dignified work back to the Dominican Republic and to other countries, but the company needs students’ support by bringing a meaningful quantity of Alta Gracia products to campus.

“This would show the industry and other businesses that this can be done,” Perez said. “Alta Gracia is like a little seed that we can use to show other businesses that it is possible to be profitable while paying workers well and treating them with respect. Only together can we achieve change in the industry.”

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