RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The shocking collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which left 1,100 workers dead, underscored what is a grim reality in many foreign nations. To produce cheap clothing for Western markets, workers in the developing world often earn poverty wages while working in unsafe and even dangerous conditions. Which is why this next story is a departure from that narrative. NPR's Jackie Northam went to the Dominican Republic and found one factory that's trying to break the mold.
ARACELIS UPIA MONTERO: (Spanish spoken)
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Aracelis Upia Montero bounds through the front door of her wood and cinderblock house, calling out for her children. The bubbly 41-year-old Montero - whom everyone calls Kuki - proudly shows guests around her cramped single-story home in Villa Altagracia in the Dominican Republic.
MONTERO: (Spanish spoken)
NORTHAM: Kuki points out her new living room furniture. In the past couple years, she's added two bedrooms and now has indoor plumbing. And she's built a little apartment at the end of her dirt driveway which she rents out.
MONTERO: (Through translator) I was able to save money very quickly, and I could get a loan from the bank. I'm now eligible for loans and credits from the bank because I earn a good salary.
NORTHAM: Kuki says three years ago, she never would have imagined life could be so good. The single mother says she was desperately poor, didn't know how she was going to feed her four children. She had little hope for the future. And then everything changed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE)
NORTHAM: Today, Kuki works at the Alta Gracia garment factory, named after her hometown, sewing T-shirts and sweatshirts bound for American colleges and universities. A large order for Notre Dame has just gone out. The facility opened just over three years ago. It's not the picture of despair that's often associated with garment factories elsewhere. Alta Gracia is bright and airy. You can watch the seasonal rains drench the lush gardens through the factory's large open door. Employees chat and laugh amongst themselves. Lively music, chosen by the workers, blasts from speakers, occasionally prompting singing from workers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Spanish)
NORTHAM: The roughly 130 workers make three and a half times the living wage - that's the equivalent of about $500 a month, plus benefits and they're allowed to unionize. Joe Bozich, the CEO, says he developed the company for both personal and business reasons. Several years ago, Bozich was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He says it made him rethink his priorities, especially when he started meeting with American college students who were actively campaigning to improve labor conditions in the garment industry.
JOE BOZICH: And when I heard their passion, consistently over the years, it started convincing me that if we made this initiative a reality that it could be successful, that the consumer would support it.
NORTHAM: The idea was to devise a model company that could pay and treat employees well and still turn a profit. Bozich set up in the Dominican Republic, taking over a factory abandoned by a South Korean company that had made baseball caps for retailers such as Nike and Reebok. The factory closed in 2007. Scott Nova with the Workers Rights Consortium says 3,500 Dominicans lost their job.
SCOTT NOVA: The industry had come to view the Dominican Republic, with wages of about 80 cents an hour as too expensive a place to make apparel, relative to low-wage Asian countries.
NORTHAM: Maritza Vargas, a union activist, was one of those who lost her job. She says she couldn't stop crying when she heard the news. There were no other employment opportunities in town. Vargas couldn't believe it when she heard a new factory was opening up and willing to pay high wages.
MARITZA VARGAS: (Through translator) Here, nobody makes that kind of money, not even a professional who has a university degree earns that kind of salary.
NORTHAM: Vargas's days are full working at the factory and heading up its union. She also takes time out for Internet conference calls from all over the world with people who want to know more about Alta Gracia.
(SOUNDBITE OF TONES)
VARGAS: Hola. (Spanish spoken)
NORTHAM: Today, it's a call with students in a human rights course at the University of Washington. Vargas and other employees explain their working conditions and encourage the students to buy Alta Gracia T-shirts and hoodies. Vargas sometimes wonders if it's all too good to be true.
VARGAS: (Through translator) There's a quote that reads: From nice dreams, you wake early. But we don't think like that at Alta Gracia.
NORTHAM: Still, Alta Gracia has yet to break even. At the moment, the factory is being subsidized by another Bozich company, Knights Apparel. It's one of the largest producers of college logo clothing, with contracts in other countries, including Bangladesh. Bozich says those other factories don't pay a living wage, but are independently audited twice a year to ensure safe working conditions. Bozich hopes Alta Gracia can be used as a model elsewhere. He believes there's momentum building for fair trade or socially responsible clothing.
BOZICH: Three years ago, nobody had heard of Alta Gracia. There was no market for this type of product because nobody had ever done it before. Three years later, we're now in over 800 bookstores around the country.
NORTHAM: Bozich says prices are comparable to high-end brands. And he says he's been approached by some big-name apparel companies - he won't divulge the names - wanting to learn more about Alta Gracia. Jackie Northam, NPR News.