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'Living wage' clothing arrives at the Cornell Store

Pablo Tolentino, an apparel factory worker in the Dominican Republic, can now afford to buy the books and uniform his son needs to attend school. That's because Tolentino works for Alta Gracia, a maker of college logo T-shirts, sweatshirts and hoodies that pays its workers a living wage.

Big Red clothing made by Alta Gracia made its debut at the Cornell Store Sept. 20. About 250 college and university bookstores began carrying the brand in September and another 150 are expected to have it by the end of the year.

"We're glad it's there in time for Homecoming Weekend," said Alex Bores '13, president of Cornell Students Against Sweatshops, which has plans to help promote the brand. "I can't wait to go buy my first piece of Alta Gracia clothing, which I'm going to do later today."

"We're thrilled. It's been two years waiting," added Gary Swisher, the Cornell Store's deputy director.

The company is named after Villa Altagracia, the village in the Dominican Republic where Knights Apparel, the largest supplier of university and college logo apparel in the United States, has refurbished a factory to house the operation. Knights Apparel CEO Joseph Bozich spent five years developing the Alta Gracia model and has hired 120 workers, many of whom lost their jobs when another apparel factory closed its doors several years ago.

Alta Gracia pays its workers nearly 3.5 times the average hourly wage for apparel workers in the Dominican Republic -- $2.83 per hour compared with 83 cents per hour. The living wage standard is based on a market-basket analysis performed by the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), an independent labor rights monitoring organization. It enables workers to provide adequate food, clean water, clothing, shelter, health care, child care and education for themselves and their families. It also provides a safe and healthy workplace and the freedom to join a workers union.

Most of the garments Americans wear are made in developing countries, where wages are so low that, despite long hours of grueling work, workers cannot provide adequate nutrition and shelter for their families, according to the WRC.

Cornell has been at the forefront of the living wage issue for several years, said Mike Powers, who oversees the university's licensing agreements. Cornell was a founding member of the WRC and also belongs to the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories around the world. In March 2009 Cornell was the 12th of more than 100 schools in the United States to sever ties with sports apparel manufacturer Russell Athletic because of its labor practices, costing the company an estimated $50 million in annual sales. Russell has since changed its practices and Cornell has reinstated its license.

More recently, a letter to the Nike Corp. from President David Skorton threatening to let Nike's license expire at the end of 2010 helped convince Nike to set up a $1.54 million relief fund to help 1,800 Honduran workers who lost their jobs when two factories that made Nike apparel closed without notice in 2009. The WRC subsequently reported that Nike subcontractors had failed to pay the workers more than $2 million in severance, Powers said. "We're starting to be seen in the front row of this issue."

The Alta Gracia clothing costs about the same as Big Red garments of similar quality, Swisher said: $17.99 for a short-sleeved T-shirt, $22.99 for a long-sleeved T-shirt and $39.99 for a hooded sweatshirt.

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Blaine Friedlander