Date: Tue, 14 Apr 98 09:37:26 CDT
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Sweatshop U In Dominican Republic
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Sweatshop U In Dominican Republic
By Bob Herbert, New York Times Op/Ed, 12 April 1998
Kenia Rodriguez, a 19-year-old sweatshop worker from the Dominican Republic, will almost certainly be fired for speaking out. But she feels the matter is important enough to risk it.
Ms. Rodriguez works in a huge factory complex in a free-trade zone near Santo Domingo that turns out baseball caps with the names and logos of major American universities, including Harvard, Notre Dame, Georgetown, U.C.L.A. and the University of North Carolina.
The caps, which are extremely popular, sell for about $20 each in the United States. The universities, through licensing agreements, make about $1.50 per cap. Apparel companies, like Champion and Starter, that market the caps make a bundle from them. So do retailers. When all the big shots finally finish pocketing their shares, very little is left for the workers who actually make the caps.
According to a study to be released this week by a labor union in the U.S., only about 8 cents from each $20 cap is allocated for workers' wages. Ms. Rodrigguez said during an interview on Friday that she is paid about $28 for a 44-hour week, which is the minimum wage in the Dominican Republic. Even with a dozen hours of overtime, she only makes about $40, she said. When I asked if that was enough for her to live on, she laughed.
"Not even half," she said through an interpreter.
So the workers live in poverty, even though the factory complex, run by a Korean-owned firm called BJŜB, is one of the most successful suppliers of baseball caps in the world. In addition to the college caps, the factories turn out caps with the logos of a variety of professional sports teams.
The study of conditions at BJŜB was done by the Union of Needletrade, Industrial and Textile Employees. "What I want to know," said a worker quoted in the study, "is, Why do we get paid so little if these caps sell for so much? I'm working 56 hours a week and sometimes I can't afford clothes for my children."
Kenia Rodriguez, who is quiet, somewhat shy and never imagined being an activist, said the pay in the factory is so low and the treatment of the workers so demeaning that she felt she had no alternative but to fight back.
She and a former employee of BJŜB, Roselio Reyes, who is 20, have come to the U.S. to visit several of the universities that benefit from the sale of caps made at BJŜB. Their tour is being sponsored by the union. Their first stop will will be Harvard on Tuesday.
There are approximately 2,000 employees in the BJŜB complex, which is in the town of Villa Altagracia. Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Reyes said supervisors frequently yell at the workers, make degrading comments, hit them and touch the women and girls inappropriately.
"Sometimes you find people crying in the corners because they were treated so badly," said Mr. Reyes.
He and Ms. Rodriguez said workers are forced to work overtime, which is illegal in the Dominican Republic. And while most of the workers need the additional money, the forced overtime serves as a roadblock to those who want to go to college at night. This is a point they plan to stress in their meetings on college campuses here.
The union's report said BJŜB fires workers who are found to be involved in labor-organizing activities, and has attempted to fire pregnant workers. Ms. Rodriguez complained that women are forced to take pregnancy tests before being hired, a policy she described as an affront.
In addition to Harvard, Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Reyes will visit Brown, Georgetown, Cornell, Rutgers and the University of Illinois to inform students, faculty members and administrators about the conditions at BJŜB.
"They are here to put the light of day on the problem," said Steven Weingarten, the union's director of industrial development. "Sweatshops are hidden and they proliferate as long as they remain hidden."
Duke University recently announced that it would require its licensees to identify all factories making products that carry the university's name and to allow the factories to be inspected by independent monitors. Duke officials recognized that opening the doors of the factories is a prerequisite to cleaning them up. Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Reyes hope to encourage other universities to follow Duke's lead.