Work is more than a way to make a living; it is a form of continuing participation in God’s creation.” This line struck me the most when I read the Catholic’s social teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers as it reminded me of a visit I had to a manufacturing company that holds this standard as their bottom line – Alta Gracia. This new company is located in the Villa Alta Gracia, Dominican Republic in a free trade zone that previously housed sweatshop factories that shutdown and moved shop to Japan when workers began to demand better conditions and better wages. During this visit I was struck by how ordinary everything was. Touring the place, seeing the good working conditions, all of the clearly marked safety precautions, the board filled with papers about worker’s rights, information that the Union put up and other health/safety precautions and seeing the workers leave their station in excitement to clock out and leave for lunch as the bell rang to mark the start of the hour to eat was all so ordinary. There was nothing special, everything seemed like, DUH! That’s the way it’s supposed to be, right!? It’s all ordinary until you consider the normal protocol of businesses like this: profit first and wherever workers fit in after that. In the factory that existed before Alta Gracia the workers were emotionally and physically abused, forced to work long hours and not given their rightful pay, wages they did make were not enough to live decently much less dignified and they were not allowed to organize themselves.
In the Dominican Republic the minimum wage is .84 cents an hour while a living wage is $2.83 an hour according to Workers Rights Consortium. Alta Gracia pays their workers this living wage plus benefits. After talking to the workers over lunch about life before Alta Gracia and life now it is clear how big of a difference it makes to simply respect workers and pay a just wage. The workers glowed with life as they shared with us many of the problems they had with their families and the community, ranging from a lack of child supervision to forest degradation and cases of sex trafficking, and how they are in a better place now. Now they are able to pay for their children to go to school, even for themselves to go back, clean up the trash in the streets, give business to other businesses and slowly move out of their poverty. It was moving for me to see how one company can make such a difference in a community by simply holding up the dignity of work and respecting the rights of workers. If everyone followed this model of simply giving someone what they are due we would definitely be on track to the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is at hand!