A 2010 article in The New York Times raised many questions about the viability of paying workers in developing countries a living wage. Will consumers pay the higher price required to support living wages? Is it good business? Does the practice have staying power?
For political science professor Rick Mayes, one question stood above the rest: When people are paid a living wage, are they truly healthier?
“The article claims that they are,” he says. “And common sense suggests that better paid workers are able to make bigger investments in things like healthier and safer homes, more nutritious food, more reliable access to clean water, and more education.”
This question is the basis of his Sophomore Scholars in Residence program, Global Health, Medical Humanities, and Human Rights. The course explores the interplay between the personal and environmental aspects of public health, focusing on the development and delivery of vaccines, antibiotics, family planning, food, sanitation, and health infrastructure.
As with all living-learning communities, the course wasn’t limited to a few hours twice a week. In October, the group traveled to Grundy, Va., where they assisted with a clinic organized by Remote Area Medical, an organization that provides free health care in remote areas of the U.S. and the world. The experience put the class face-to-face with Americans living in poverty and lacking access to basic health care.
“The people came eight-plus hours for one day to get free health care because they can’t afford it,” says Matt Purdy, ’14. “They don’t have a doctor — this is their once-a-year checkup. It was a wake-up call for me — how can we change this so that everyone in our nation can get health care?”
The experience seeing the effects of poverty at home was juxtaposed with a trip to the Dominican Republic, where students saw a thriving community in a developing country. While there, the class visited with employees of Alta Gracia — the very organization Mayes had read about in The New York Times — and saw employees who were paid a living wage, and were productive at work, happier, loyal to their company and fellow workers, and had healthier children and families. According to Mayes, the visit also showcased the connections among key class concepts, such as economics, agriculture, medicine, and human rights.
“It's not just the individual worker who is healthier and more productive because they are paid better,” he says. “Their families are also healthier because the workers have better homes, more consistent access to basic health care, clean water, and better food. The ripple effects of paying workers more are extensive.”
Moreover, Mayes says interacting with people in the real world brings topics to life in a personal and emotional way that doesn’t always happen in the classroom. It’s a feeling Caroline Chandler, ’14, experienced when visiting the home of an Alta Gracia employee.
“Alta Gracia is a point of pride in the community,” she says. “As we drove through the community and made our way up the narrow street on top of the mountain, it became clear that this woman’s job had allowed her to build the nicest house in the community.”
While in the Dominican Republic, Mayes made an offhand comment that he would award extra credit if the class could get the bookstore to carry the shirts. Alta Gracia is a subsidiary of Knights Apparel, a collegiate apparel company based in South Carolina.
The next thing he knew, the class had made arrangements to launch a line of shirts that will hit the shelves in September. To the bookstore, the idea was simply good business: the store already offers several product lines in partnership with Richmond classes and organizations.
“We want to maintain good relations with students and faculty, and also offer a new product not quite like everything else,” says Roger Brooks, bookstore manager. “They felt it would be well received by the student body because of how the factory changes lives.”
And it turns out the class earned much more than extra credit from the project. “I had never thought about how a T-shirt was made until I walked into the factory and saw each piece of a T-shirt being assembled,” says Meredith Hawkins, ’14. “Some stations were in charge of sleeves, some collars, some the torso. I was taken aback by the intricacy of an item I wear daily. I realized that my actions mattered and that my awareness mattered. Claiming to not know was no longer acceptable.”