Contents - Previous - Next

This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at

7. Restructuring and retraining

Field work
Review of the literature
New managerial strategies
The garment industry in transition
The workforce
Implications for social policy

The Canadian garment industry in transition

Charlene Gannagé


In 1986, on International Women's Day in Toronto, a contingent of garment workers from the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) marched under a new banner designed especially for the day. They were celebrating what appeared to be a new beginning. They had successfully won an industry-wide strike. They had thrown off the yoke of a male- dominated union leadership, with more rank and file women active on the stewards' council. Their participation marked an important shift in contemporary feminist politics toward a more inclusive movement that recognized the importance of combining issues of class, gender and ethnicity.

By 1993, following the passage of the United States-Canada Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and in anticipation of its extension to include Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), garment workers were again on the streets. They were protesting the exploitative conditions of industrial homework, seen to be on the increase in some of the larger cities of Canada.

How had the Canadian garment industry changed? Were immigrant women entering a new period of militant unionism or being thrown backward to an earlier time when sweatshop conditions prevailed? What new strategies are favoured by garment workers in the face of debates about the need for retraining in a competitive global economy?

The purpose of this chapter is to provide an overview of the Canadian garment industry in transition. It begins with a brief analysis of the theoretical literature, drawn from both Marxist and feminist debates about the restructuring of work, especially as these debates have helped to shape political responses to the restructuring process. The paper presents evidence to suggest that the Canadian garment industry is in transition, with new corporate strategies existing alongside more traditional forms of manufacturing. It considers the role of governments in the restructuring process, especially the way in which the Canadian state has encouraged continental economic integration with the United States and Mexico. This chapter seeks to understand how feminist anti-racist initiatives in educational policy place the needs of immigrant workers at the centre of the retraining debate.2

Field work

The initial field work for this study involved four factory sites and seventy in-depth taped interviews with immigrant women sewing machine operators, packers, bundlers, spreaders and pressers. To help with language interpretation, I worked with women who were familiar with the working class immigrant communities. Women workers were interviewed in English, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish.

Interviews with rank and file workers were supplemented with an analysis of union records, participant observation in the union office, regular attendance at union meetings, and by interviews with plant managers, union representatives and industry specialists. Tours of factories were conducted in Canada and the United States.

The interviews were carried out in two stages between 1985 and 1987, and again in 1990, following the introduction of the FTA. In the later stage, I returned to one of the factories to interview a smaller sample of men who worked as cutters, shippers and material handlers. From 1987 to 1992, I kept in touch with developments in the industry by observing the monthly meetings of the Fashion Industry Liaison Committee (FILC), a municipal committee convened by city councillors representing the fashion district from the New Democratic Party (NDP). The mandate of the committee is to lobby city, provincial and federal governments on behalf of the fashion industry. This committee includes community college educators, representatives from the garment unions, retailers and garment manufacturers.

Review of the literature

Canadian political economy tradition

The Canadian political economy tradition has its roots in left nationalist debates about the character of the Canadian state and its relationship to Canada's industrial base. Rianne Mahon made an important contribution from within this tradition by examining the role of the Canadian state in regulating textile imports in exchange for the sale of Canadian staple products and resources. She examined the process whereby Canadian textile capital became increasingly consolidated, so that only a few companies dominated the domestic market (Matron, 1984). More recently, the literature has shifted to an analysis of the government's role in helping to set the stage for intercontinental integration and rationalization of the major industries in which Canadian women are employed (Cohen, 1987). Thus far, little attention had been paid to the restructuring of Canadian garment capital, which is perceived to be scattered among small manufacturers with little political power. A labor-intensive industry, the garment industry has remained highly protected, with unions often allied with small manufacturers to save the industry from import penetration.

As this paper will demonstrate, the industry is in transition. Changes in the industry demand new strategies.

Labour process perspective

The labour process perspective has drawn attention to the political culture of work organization and the historical transformation of managerial control (Braverman, 1974; Burawoy, 1979; Edwards, 1979). The feminist contribution has been to extend the boundaries of workplace studies to understand the way that gender relations have transformed organizational theory and workplace struggles (eg., Cockburn, 1985 and Coyle, 1982 (England); Steedman, 1986 (Canada); Lamphere, 1979 (United States)). My own contribution has called for a new feminism that combines issues of class, gender and ethnicity. Based on a case study of a unionized garment factory, my earlier research examined women's double day of labour and the barriers to women's active participation in the union (Gannagé, 1986).

Global feminist perspective

The global feminist perspective focuses on global labour markets and the international division of labour. The unequal relationship between core and periphery countries is explained within the context of a global manufacturing system divided along gender and racial lines. Swasti Mitter (1986) is especially concerned with the world-wide subcontracting process made possible by new developments in technology and the mobility of capital within transnational enterprises. The increasing casualization and marginalization of women's work in the quasi-legal sector characterizes the fragmentation of work as capital moves operations from North to South (see also Nash and Fernandez-Kelly, 1983). Women's resistance through participation in non-governmental organizations is highlighted as a major catalyst for social change.

International labour studies

A newly emerging approach to labour studies examines work relations in both developing countries and the first world (Munck, 1988; Cohen, 1991). Recognizing that different historical patterns of industrial development have occurred, this approach analyses the labour process, the role of unions and the way in which the state has shaped workplace struggles. According to Elson (1991), male-biased approaches ignore gender relations, especially the role of women in the development process.

Each of these perspectives has been influential in shaping the discussion about the nature of industrial restructuring around the globe. In Canada, immigrant workers in the clothing industry are uniquely positioned because of their experience of two cultures across national boundaries, their history of struggle, and their spirit of survival in the face of tremendous difficulties created by the new industrial giants and their political representatives in government.

New managerial strategies

Cloakmakers in the ILGWU, primarily from eastern Europe, resisted changes to the organization of their work in 1966. A story in the Toronto Star carried the headline, 'Garment workers fight mass production'.3 Referred to as the 'Artex rebels', a dozen skilled craftsmen in Toronto protested that factory owners threatened to hire non-union labour to open a sportswear shop. The skilled tailors feared that their jobs would be lost if the conventional method of making the whole garment were to be replaced by a new section system used widely in the men's clothing industry. Their fears were gender based. At the time, new employees were mainly Italian, Greek and Portuguese immigrant women. The union struck a compromise to protect the existing cloak shops which used the conventional method, while allowing new shops in the sportswear industry to introduce the section system.

In the 1990s, the demographic characteristics of the labour force, ownership patterns, and style of work in the Canadian ladies' clothing industry have changed. Technology has been introduced as part of a massive restructuring process which has transformed the industry from top to bottom. The restructuring process is multifaceted and has proceeded with government and manufacturers working in tandem. In less successful operations, new technology has been used by management to downsize, while more successful enterprises have expanded overtime, shift work and part-time work. With an increasing reliance on technological innovation in factories whose owners could afford to modernize or received government aid to do so, the occupational structure of the workforce has shifted from both male and female skilled craft work in the cloak and dress industry, respectively, to female-dominated assembly line production, section work and industrial homework in the newly-created sportswear industry.

The restructuring process, begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s, accelerated with the passage of the FTA. During the year following the introduction of the FTA, from June 1989 to June 1990, the clothing industry lost 23,000 jobs, an 18 per cent decline in employment. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the main labour federation in Canada, estimates that in the first two years under the free trade agreement with the United States, 582,000 fewer jobs were created in the Canadian economy than could be expected under average conditions (Canadian Labour Congress, 1993: 116).

Reskilling or deskilling?

Gender relations have changed at the top of the pyramid structure as well as at the bottom. Changing attitudes in business have seen more women assuming managerial positions. Daughters and wives of owners are becoming divisional heads and paid employees of the company, instead of 'helping out' fathers and brothers.

Jobs have been created in business services, warehouse distribution and import houses. A new strata of white collar clerical personnel are employed in offices of human resources management. The rationalization of the office to meet the pressure of just-in-time delivery threatens the employment of this largely non-unionized clerical workforce. Electronic data interchange systems have eliminated the need for clothing retailers to keep costly inventories. Rapid response and fast turnover to fill special orders entail a closer interface between manufacturer and retailer. The demand for increased productivity and greater flexibility is passed onto the already vulnerable white collar workforce (Dagg and Fudge, 1992).

The more skilled aspects of pattern making and grading have been taken out of the hands of male cutters to become highly trained positions for computer operators and programmers. In owner-managed factories, trusted family members, or even the owner, use computer aided design systems. A few senior cutters have been pushed into middle management positions. Some openings have emerged in the highly-paid mechanical field, positions that have been given to men (see also Cockburn, 1985).

Computer aided design and manufacturing has made it possible to design and cut patterns in Canada and transfer the assembly work to states in the United States or offshore where labour standards and wages are lower. Women are employed in the less challenging aspects of this traditionally male-dominated craft, in laying and cutting the fabric.

Automated material handling systems, used in some shops since the early 1970s, carry the work to sewing machine operators, eliminating the jobs of bundle girls. With a press of a button, a hanger drops down beside a sewing machine operator. She sews a single seam or dart and presses the button again. The automated conveyor belt transports the garment to the next operator for the next operation.

Piece work

In the sewing room, young women are expected to perform more than one operation. They are rotated from job to job to meet the employer's requirement for a flexible workforce, while older workers do the same job day in and day out. An administrative apparatus based on prescribed rules and procedures, fewer supervisory personnel and the reliance on conveyors to control the pace of work has made it easier for management to track workers' performance. Electronic monitors built into the individual work stations are used to check the speed of sewing machine operators.

On the factory floor, changes in the social organization of work have given rise to new forms of wage payment. Because of the transitional character of the industry in Canada, no single method of calculating piece wages predominates in a largely piece work industry. Multinational firms have developed standardized methods of wage payment, used in subsidiary firms. More than one method for calculating the wage may exist. Workers in the cutting room may be paid by the hour, while those who work as sewing machine operators may be paid under an incentive system. Various accounting procedures are used to pay piece wages, ranging from the traditional ticket system of quality control to more complex calculations of workers' output based on the standard allowed minute. In a multi-ethnic work environment, numerically-based accounting systems increase the demand for English literacy and mathematical numeracy.

Workers' resistance to the intensification of work may take the form of individual responses such as absenteeism or job shopping. Coordinated resistance on the shop floor, such as slow downs or work stoppages, is used to enforce workers' demands for improved conditions during contract negotiations. A cutter reported that some women in his factory engaged in mischievous play, sewing garments backwards or with the stripes upside down if management practices seemed especially harsh or unfair. These activities were timed to cause the most havoc, usually when the company was under particular pressure to meet special orders or production deadlines. A shop steward reported that in her factory, where turnover was especially high, management paid workers a special bonus for recruiting family members or friends. Some workers expressed reluctance to comply with such requests when piece wages were so low.

The ethnic division of labour

Forty-five per cent of the workers in the garment industry are immigrants, the majority of whom are women whose first language is neither English nor French. The latest wave of immigration has brought visible minority women from third world countries to Canadian garment factories.4 Third world immigration is seen as part of a global restructuring of the international migration system. Canada shares with the United States, Australia and New Zealand a relative openness to ethnically diverse immigration from third world countries (Simmons, 1990). Immigrants have fled the ill effects of structural adjustment programmes or poverty in their home countries (George, 1992). Once they enter Canada, they join a labour market that is already structured both ethnically and on class lines (Li, 1988). As they look for a better life for themselves and their children, immigrant workers face new managerial strategies and government policies that threaten to take away their livelihood and the limited gains that workers have achieved in recent years.

On the factory floor, a combination of different methods have been used by clothing manufacturers to maintain control of an ethnically diverse workforce. In one factory that I toured, East Asian immigrant women from Vietnam, China and Hong Kong were assigned the 'more delicate tasks' off the assembly line. With less opportunity to earn bonuses, they reported that their take home pay was lower. Ethnicity can be used by management to favour one ethnic group over another for special treatment or privileges. Black immigrant women reported differential treatment in terms of layoffs and recall. In another factory, Italian immigrant workers with a history of union experience were laid off, while more recent Vietnamese refugees did not lose their jobs. The tolerance of ethnic traditions in the workplace may be a cooptive method of winning the confidence and loyalty of new immigrant workers. In a factory where turnover was a problem for management, Muslim workers were allowed to take time from their work to pray in the lunchroom, and were granted time off work to observe their holy days.

The garment industry in transition

The manner in which firms are restructuring is extremely diverse and includes the radical transformation of long-standing enterprises as well as the rapid growth of new enterprises. The case studies presented below illustrate both the breadth of that process and the specific ways that companies have tried to improve their own market position relative to their competitors. Changes in managerial styles, from entrepreneurial to corporate, new ownership patterns, and the global context of garment manufacturing mark a dynamic transition. Multinational firms have grown, declined and revived alongside smaller family-owned businesses. Large clothing com- panies have acquired their own retail chains, bought out their competitors, integrated vertically or sought international fame through designer-driven franchise operations and product licensing. Large garment firms have expanded too quickly and tied their fortunes to an economy in decline: some manufacturers closed their retail outlets in Canada to offset losses in the United States. Others, like Mr. Jax, closed their manufacturing houses.

The threat of factory closure has spelled trouble for unions. Some firms have sought to undermine already established collective agreements through wage freezes or capital flight across provinces and to low wage economies in the United States, the Caribbean and the Far East; the extension of free trade to include Mexico creates another opening for capital mobility. Some firms have co-opted unions by using employee pension funds to finance rapid expansion schemes.

The rapid change and multiple threats have paralysed union organizations and hindered their recruitment of members, which has created fertile ground for the growth of non-union contract shops and subcontracting to industrial homeworkers (Cameron and Mak, 1991; Dagg and Fudge, 1992; Leach, 1993). An inquiry into the conditions of clothing workers revealed that visible minority workers in non-unionized contract shops were especially disadvantaged when their factories closed without notice, leaving them with no jobs and no severance pay (BASIC, n.d.).

At the bottom of this class structure are the growing proportion of women who take work into their home. The ILGWU interviewed thirty industrial homeworkers, who were primarily Chinese-speaking. Most of the homeworkers were paid less than the minimum wage. Half of them reported difficulty in getting paid for work completed. Many women were being helped at home by their children (Dagg and Fudge, 1992:p. 24). The ILGWU has reported a two-thirds loss in membership since 1986. The expansion of garment manufacture to new localities outside urban centres, and even outside the country, poses tough challenges in organizing the unorganized.

Dylex in Toronto

Dylex is a pioneer in multinational retailing. The company began by manufacturing sportswear, marketed through retail outlets it purchased in Canada and the United States. The company met with success until it ventured into the United States and bought some failing retail chains (Foxmoor, Brooks and T. Edwards) at a time when the economy was heading into a downturn. In 1985, Dylex had 2,700 retail stores in Canada and the United States. By 1991, the conglomerate was down to 1,500 stores. The company showed a heavy loss in its Canadian operations in 1986.5 By the first half of 1991, they recorded a loss of 37.6 million dollars and were closing their Town and Country women's retail chain in Canada and their Club International, recently acquired from Monaco Group, in the United States.6 In 1991, the company announced a twelve month wage freeze among its 20,000 full-and part-time employees.7 Despite these losses, Dylex is considered to be a major stakeholder in the Canadian retail market with a strong balance sheet in 1991, with 117 million dollars in cash at hand,8 and control of about 10 per cent of the Canadian apparel retail market.

Alfred Sung and the Monaco Group

While Dylex sought to acquire retail holdings, the emphasis of Alfred Sung and the Monaco Group was designer-driven. The Monaco Group based its strategy on the promotion of a single designer, Alfred Sung, who is known throughout Canada and internationally. His name was used in marketing and promotion not only in women's clothing, but also in a variety of products manufactured under license by other companies. Some 30 per cent of the Alfred Sung label was manufactured in-house, 50 per cent was manufactured by Canadian contractors and the rest was manufactured overseas, primarily in Hong Kong.9 When the Monaco Group posted a loss in 1991, Alfred Chan and brother Edward Tan, for Etac Sales Ltd. bought the rights to the Alfred Sung label to market Alfred Sung clothing world-wide for fifty years. Etac is able to improve profit margins by using Asian manufacturers and distribution networks in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tianjin.10

Tan Jay: from Winnipeg to Toronto

Peter Nygard, owner of the Tan Jay line, has also captured international fashion headlines. Nygard is well known for his lavish Hollywood-style extravaganzas both in Canada and the United States. He is also famous for placing whole page advertisements in Winnipeg newspapers to present his case against union organizing drives.11 The Manitoba labour board has ruled that Tan Jay had committed unfair labour practices, including the refusal to deduct union dues, to allow the union access to the plant and to pay into the union's retirement and health and welfare funds. The labour board ruling followed a history of intimidatory practices used by the company against its immigrant workforce, many of them from the Philippines. The company was ordered to pay the union and illegally laid off employees $150,000 in monies owed and fines.12

Tan Jay employs fifteen hundred workers and has also opened factories in Montreal and Thunder Bay, with research and design facilities in New York and Los Angeles and extensive offshore operations throughout the Orient (Ghorayshi, 1990). Much of Nygard's success has been underwritten by his political acumen in lobbying for favourable terms from federal government assistance programmes to finance the restructuring of his four factories in Winnipeg. He has now moved his corporate headquarters to Toronto.

Mr. Jax Group of Vancouver

Another feature of the Canadian garment industry is the expansion of new fashion centres outside the traditional Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg needle industry. Vancouver's Mr. Jax is an example of a fashion group that initially had trouble breaking into the eastern retail market. In 1986, Mr. lax listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and purchased West Coast Woollen Mills in British Columbia. The mill made woollen worsteds and would become Mr. Jax's domestic fabric supplier.13 In 1987, the Mr. Jax Group acquired Surrey Classics.14 But by 1990, unable to sustain its expansion, Mr. Jax was in the red, looking to sell to a multinational company who could take advantage of the United States market.

Mr. Jax Group employed 1400 people across Canada, had six companies with retail outlets and real estate holdings plus a state-of-the-art factory housed in a recently purchased building on Vancouver's waterfront. In the year ending 30 November, 1990, it posted a loss of 5.9 million dollars. In January, 1991, it announced the closing of the Surrey Classics Division.15 One hundred and ninety workers were affected by the closure.16

Government strategies

The restructuring of Canadian garment capital has been supported by federal government policies designed to improve the competitiveness of Canada's manufacturing base. The previous regulation of imports as an industrial strategy did not work. Despite the government's 'protection' of the domestic clothing industry, the industry showed a decline in employment prior to the FTA, which could in part be attributed to rationalization and new technology. Following the introduction of the FTA, industrial homework increased. As mentioned, some small companies, unable to compete, have opened import houses or have become non-union shops in a subcontracting nexus.

The federal government helped manufacturers modernize their operations with grants through the now defunct Canadian Industrial Renewal Board. Non-Canadian multinational corporations have established branch plants in Canada under the auspices of the also defunct Foreign Investment Review Agency (Matron, 1984). Work sharing (with the help of unemployment insurance), subsidized training programmes and tax shelters were also provided through government assistance programmes (Ghorayshi, 1990).

The Free Trade Agreement

In 1988, the political and economic stage was set for the introduction of the FTA, which would have disastrous consequences for workers, unions and small businesses in the ladies' clothing industry. The FTA has helped to shift the Canadian clothing import structure from low cost countries to the United States. The agreement opened the Canadian market to manufacturers based in the United States while helping big clothing firms in Canada to move production south of the border; it also helped large clothing manufacturers-turned-retailers in Canada to ship their manufactured apparel goods duty free to their existing retail outlets in the United States. American exports of apparel to Canada (not including production contracted abroad by US firms) increased dramatically by 26 per cent in volume and 14 per cent in value in the first nine months of 1991, following the introduction of the FTA, although the total market for apparel was down considerably, with the total volume of imports from all sources declining by 7 per cent, and by 11 per cent in value terms (Beatty, 1992: p. 14).

Contents - Previous - Next