The Leadership Studies Hall hosted a lecture Tuesday evening that presented two women from La Altagracia, a providence of the Dominican Republic, who had experienced the hardships of working long hours, suffering poor working conditions for little pay but much abuse.
The lecture was part of a campaign by Solidarity Ignite to increase awareness of sweatshop conditions. These women, Sobeida Fortuna and Maritza Vargas, came to K-State in order to tell students about how many garment factories mistreat their workers, not allowing them to stay home with their sick children and even verbally abusing the workers and possibly gain support in changing the dynamics of sweat shops like BJ+B, a garment factory previously located in La Altagracia.
“If we (the workers) did something wrong, (the supervisors) would throw everything we had sewn and make us pick them up,” Vargas said.
To help the workers regain some human rights they felt they were deprived of, they tried to form workers’ unions. This was shot down by the company, either firing or blacklisting workers like Fortuna and Vargas for attempting to form unions. Things began to change for these workers though when they came into contact with United Students Against Sweatshops. United Students is an organization devoted to protecting the human rights of mistreated workers. After much work, United Students helped the workers establish a union, only to have the workers be jobless within seven years when the factory shut down. Things were bad again.
Altagracia, a collegiate garment factory, did not open in La Altagracia until about four years after BJ+B left, according to Fortuna. Many never found work again or even left the country to find other opportunities. Things definitely brightened for the workers once Altagracia opened.
“There are so many good things about Altagracia that we could talk about it all night and not even cover half of it,” Vargas said.
Amy Kessel from Solidarity Ignite said that suddenly workers were even able to start attending universities because of the flexible hours Altagracia offered. They were receiving living wages that were actually three times the minimum wage in free trade zones. Workers have a democratic voice through the unions that features strong female leadership. They also have improved health and safety regulations.
“It’s a dream in reality,” Vargas said, explaining that she can finally throw a birthday party for her kids.
Vargas’ kids can finally go to school, and one of her daughters is actually attending a university.
Solidarity Ignite and workers like Vargas and Fortuna encourages college students across the globe to push their student governments and campus bookstores to make sure that the apparel they buy is supporting companies like Altagracia.
“It only takes a few people to make a difference,” Kessel said.