The Dominican Republic is a nation of incredible wealth and natural beauty; however, much of the nation’s population is impoverished. According to the International Monetary Fund, the average Dominican makes less than a fifth of the income that the average American makes as measured by GDP per capita (PPP). In fact, the minimum wage of the Dominican Republic is about 85 cents per hour. As a result, many Dominican families must work seemingly never-ending shifts in “sweat shops” that are all too often owned by massive American corporations.
Since our students are consumers of products made for American corporations, Mr. Osei and I tasked our students with designing their own garment factory. Students had to set their employees’ wage levels, establish work shift policies, brainstorm appropriate rules and responsibilities and develop mission statements for their organizations. Over the next hour, we were completely blown away by our students’ reflections. When we asked students what they wanted their factories’ missions to be, a few students suggested that they wanted their factories to help give opportunities to impoverished youth. Other students said that their factories would help train “unskilled” workers. Even more students said that their factories should financially support local communities. Surprisingly, not one student said that our factories should be focused on making profits. Furthermore, our students set higher wages in order to allow families to earn living wages.
After this exercise, we looked at a very real factory that has incorporated similar ideas. A few years ago, Knights Apparel opened a factory in Villa Altagracia in order to manufacture college sports gear and apparel. Instead of paying the minimum wage, Knights Apparel pays its employees three times this amount. In a New York Times article on the factory, employees consistently pointed out how these higher wages allowed them to make substantial improvements to their living conditions. While other apparel companies highly doubt that the factory will survive, Knights Apparel has continued to prosper with continued support from college clothing stores. Of course, this wasn’t surprising to our students because they know that with hard work and community support, anything is possible.