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The workforce

Training and retraining

Along with participation in restructuring the industry, the government's policy regarding labour has emphasized the need for the workforce to retrain. Federal government initiatives have called for a national educational strategy for 'competitive' training to keep pace with global restructuring. New job opportunities in the 1990s, according to the Hudson Institute study commissioned by the federal government, will see a decline in blue collar jobs and a shift to a service economy with highly-skilled jobs, especially in the fields of health care, transportation and finance. The emphasis on retraining has been at best elitist and narrow, highlighting the technical requirements of industry rather than the educational development of workers. New technology has been seen to benefit workers with university education most:

Even jobs in manufacturing are becoming like service jobs. Workers need greater technical skills to supervise, maintain and reprogram computer-assisted equipment and robots. They must deal with new materials on the job and oversee quality control for the goods they produce. More workers are spending more time on design work, marketing distribution, maintenance and finance. These jobs require good communication skills and problem solving abilities.

(Minister of State, Multiculturalism and Citizenship Canada, 1990: 16)

The new training strategy calls for a 'continuous learning culture to complement formal education' (ibid., 1990: p.25). Employers will be expected to fulfil training needs through employer-assisted training programmes, as a form of 'employment insurance' for all employees made vulnerable by changes in technology (ibid., 1990: p. 11). This contrasts with the general lack of industry training in Canada. Silvia Ostry estimates that Canada spends about 0.6 per cent of payroll costs on training. This is half of what the United States spends and a fifth of what Japan spends. Canada also lags in research and development.17

Sectoral analyses of the clothing industry have elicited manufacturers' support for the long-term development of human resources (Industry, Science and Technology Canada, 1991). Suggestions focus on apprenticeship programmes for pattern makers, middle management training and industry support for both young and established designers. Job development strategies that do not include the long-term educational goals of immigrant workers perpetuate a class-biased programme.

For years, the working knowledge and self-expression of tailors and seamstresses had been appropriated by managerial strategies to wrest control of the labour process, to transform it and to break the autonomy of craft workers. Today the majority of immigrant workers who obtained or maintained employment were not using their skills, they were losing their skills or their skills were not transferable. Their work was labelled 'unskilled' despite the working knowledge that workers obtained on the job, the transformation of their skills within the labour process and the development of collective skills they shared with their workmates. (Gannagé, 1989-90).

The women

Some South Asian and Latin American women that were interviewed had professional experience as nurses, teachers and even doctors in training prior to immigrating to Canada. There were women from Northern Italy who had been apprenticed in garment manufacture and knew how to make the whole garment; black women from the Caribbean, too poor to purchase clothes, who had learned how to sew out of economic necessity; and many Portuguese women from the rural Azores who had no previous industrial experience and came to Canada as economic refugees. High school aged daughters of immigrants contributed to the family income by working in the sportswear industry.

Let me introduce some women shop stewards in the factories that I studied, women who had battled against traditional notions of femininity to hold union positions.

Gina is a skilled tailor who knows how to design patterns for dresses and make the whole garment, but she is not using these skills because she works in a highly sectionalized garment factory. In 1959, she immigrated from Italy to Canada. She worked for the same company for over twenty years until the employer declared bankruptcy. During her employment, she had two children and took time off work for six months and five months respectively. Her mother lived with her and helped with childcare. In 1981, she found a job as a serger. Her starting salary was only $4.00 an hour. Her years of experience as a sewing machine operator enabled her to master her new job in about a week. After 3 1/2 years, she earns $5.60 an hour.

Isaura, from the rural Azores, has a grade three education. She immigrated to Canada in 1960. She worked at night, cleaning offices and factories. She eventually applied for a day job in a pickle factory where she worked for three months before she was laid off. After four years and a second child, she found a job as a busheller (removing loose threads before garments are shipped) in a factory located in her neighbourhood. The supervisor taught her how to use an industrial sewing machine and after eleven years she earns $6.80. When the company installed an automated conveyor belt, she was assigned a job previously done by two people. She handles 1,275 units a day. Her job involves lifting and stretching. She suffers from soreness in her muscles and varicose veins in her legs.

In Bev's home country in Ghana, it was common for women to work outside the household as traders in the market. She received most of her education up to secondary school in Ghana. She followed her husband to England, where she worked for five years as a key punch operator. When she came to Canada in 1971, she applied for a job in a bank but was told that she lacked 'Canadian experience'. She obtained work in a muffler factory and then in a plastics factory. In 1983, she found a job in a garment factory as a machinist. Her starting salary, after twelve years in Canada and plenty of 'Canadian experience', was $4.00 an hour. When her husband became ill, she applied for a 'less strenuous job' in the examining area where she put her mathematical skills to use measuring the sizes and checking the quality of garments. Her basic salary without bonus was around $170 a week and during a good week she was able to earn $180 take-home pay.

Rosa has a grade five education and learned how to sew dresses at school in Italy. She immigrated to Canada in 1960 and for ten years worked in a non-unionized pyjamas factory. When the factory moved, she found another job. She has worked as a sewing machine operator for twelve years. She can operate four industrial sewing machines: single needle, double needle, serger and a special machine for making plaquets. She knows how to sew all the parts on the blouse but has never been taught how to inset the collars and sleeves. At home, she sews the whole garment for family members. She works in a piece work factory. For every 100 units she earns $5.17 for sewing the hem of the blouse and $3.65 for plaquets on the cuff. Workers receive a minimum guarantee of $4.50 an hour plus a cost of living bonus negotiated every year between the employer and the union. In 1986, she earned $6.87 an hour. When she came to work in this factory in 1974, 75 to 80 workers were employed, and in 1986 only 23 workers remained. Rosa learned to operate more and more machines as fewer workers were left to perform the subassembly operations. She has been laid off five times in one year: 'I have a house. I have a family. I have to work to live . . . I can't afford to stay home.' When I visited her in the summer of 1986, she did not know when she would be called back to work.

Family considerations were an integral feature of immigrant women's working lives. Childcare was viewed as a basic necessity; unemployed women relatives, older daughters and grandmothers traditionally provided childcare when government programmes were inaccessible or nonexistent. The lack of accessible childcare outside traditional family networks caused some married women to delay or interrupt their labour force participation, while grandmothers left the industry to 'help out' daughters with children. The lack of both childcare and the protection of citizenship pushed refugee women to combine family responsibilities with industrial homework without the benefit of union protection.

The men

I returned to the field after the introduction of the FTA to understand the working conditions of the men in the industry: how had the industry changed? What were the skills that they had brought to the industry? Were they using their skills? Were they adapting their skills to garment manufacture? Two of the four factories that I initially set out to study had closed and I wished to know what kind of training programmes immigrant workers wanted. Evidence for the next section of the paper is based on in-depth interviews conducted with male workers at Jersey Garments, a sportswear factory in operation since 1975.18

Despite the FTA, Jersey Garments had continued to be profitable. The employer had bought an exclusive franchise for a sportswear line from the United States that made jerseys, sweatshirts and other athletic clothing. This was so successful that he introduced a second part-time shift, and workers were making overtime wages during the week and on Saturdays.

The men who worked in the factory included East Asians from Vietnam and the Philippines, blacks and West Indians from the Caribbean, and Spanish speaking workers from Latin America as well as workers from eastern Europe and Israel. The immigrant men that I interviewed criticized the employer's unwillingness to invest in human resources and train workers for careers in the industry.19 Most men reported that they learned on the job by watching others and developing their own working knowledge. Men were a minority in the sportswear industry, and were primarily employed as cutters, mechanics, materials handlers and shippers. The men were paid higher wages than the women, but their wages were much lower than the wages of other male workers in the Canadian manufacturing sector.

The men that I interviewed had a number of skills that they had learned in their home country, but which they were not using. Some were enrolled in post-secondary education prior to immigrating to Canada: one had studied dentistry, two had trained in auto mechanics, another had trained to be an electrician. Some previous occupations included work as a bricklayer, radio broadcaster, x-ray technician, and typesetter. In the majority of cases, workers had to drop out of high school because of financial need. Those who had trained as apprentices could not find well-paying jobs in their home countries, others found that their skills and training were not recognized in Canada or they could not afford to take courses for accreditation. Some talked about holding down more than one part-time job to make ends meet.

Paulo is Spanish speaking, from Peru, and has 17 years of cutting experience. He is 40 years old and earned $12.25 an hour in 1990. He learned cutting in his uncle's factory while studying to become an electrical engineer, prior to immigrating to Canada in 1976. He just recently received his Canadian citizenship. His wife stays home to look after their two small children. They cannot afford to purchase a home in Toronto on their single income. At weekends, the family participates in the activities of the Spanish-speaking community.

Walter is from Trinidad. He is 26 years old and employed as a material handler. He was recently promoted to inventory control and is considered a manager, with two employees under his supervision. He earns $9.00 an hour. He shares a small basement apartment with his wife, young son, his sister and her husband. They share expenses and everyone in the household helps with childcare.

Samuel immigrated from the Philippines. He works in the shipping department and earned $10.23 in 1990. A union activist, he has resisted promotion to supervisor. He works at a second job where he earns $7.16 an hour. He works sixteen hours a day, five days a week. He is 54 years old and has been with the company for nine years. His wife and three children work and help to pay for the mortgage on a small condominium in a subsidized housing development. They live in downtown Toronto. His wife's parents also live in the household.

The men wanted to learn more at work and to be appropriately compensated while training on the job. Paulo, with seventeen years experience in cutting, was eager to upgrade his skills in computer-training and pattern-making. He suffered an injury at work and welcomed the opportunity to use a computer. Samuel, aged 54, felt that he was 'too old' to move from his present job in shipping and inventory control to start over again. To keep busy, Walter often asked the mechanic if he could help him. With his previous training in auto mechanics, he had an understanding of how machines work and welcomed the opportunity to work full-time as a mechanic. Walter described to me, in great detail, the chart he had developed to organize his shipping orders, including lot and dye numbers, fabric content, type of weave and so on. He was very proud of his ingenuity and skill in developing a chart to help him organize his work. It is now technologically possible with the development of electronic data processing for inventory control (EDI) to eliminate the most challenging aspects of his job, and the need for the skills which first won him a promotion to management. No longer in the union, he has unwittingly lost his only opportunity for minimal job protection.

For the first time in the recent history of the union, the men in the industry compared their wages with those of the women in a noncompetitive way. The men spoke of the need to strike alliances with the women, most of whom were earning wages of $6.50 an hour, some with eight to twelve years experience. Gender politics extended from the workplace into the home front. One worker supported his wife in her attempt to receive Canadian accreditation for her nursing skills and wondered whether such feminist retraining programmes could be expanded to include immigrant men. On the job, male workers lamented that women employed as cutters continued to do the same job day in and day out at lower wages than the men, thereby weakening the cutters' bargaining position. Patriarchal attitudes at home posed dilemmas for women. The son in one cutter's household would not allow his mother to be interviewed because she was 'busy' with family responsibilities.

For most of the men who participated in my study, family responsibilities were an integral aspect of their lives. Mutual support within the family context helped the men to continue working during hard times. With the erosion of government social programmes and the universality of such programmes under attack, enormous pressure is placed on working class families to absorb more of the cost and care of dependents (McQuaig, 1993).

The nature of men's work in the industry determined the kind of resistance open to them. They were under pressure to increase their productivity. Paid by the hour, they usually stretched out their work during slack periods in order to look busy. When accidents occurred at work, they were reluctant to take time off work or file for workers' compensation for fear of losing their employment. For men employed as cutters, hand and finger injuries were prevalent. Shippers reported back strains and muscular injuries. The employer kept a personnel record on each employee. One worker's personnel record was used by the employer to discourage him from filing for compensation when he was injured on the job.

Implications for social policy

The restructuring process that has occurred in the Canadian garment industry has seen a decline in men's labour force participation and the downgrading of employment standards for the vast majority of women immigrant workers. Following the completion of my research, a report presented to Labour Canada made a number of recommendations to mitigate against the worst effects of industrial restructuring and technological change, especially related to health and safety and the reorganization of work (Gannagé, 1987). An earlier version of these recommendations was translated and sent to workers who had participated in the research project. The recommendations on skills training continue to be relevant for developing educational programmes for immigrant workers. Lifelong learning and paid on-the-job training are important to a democratic educational programme. So is accessibility: in the case of immigrant workers this means that such programmes need to consider the childcare and language needs of the workers, and the double day which most of them work.

Garment and textile unions are developing a united front to save jobs. Inter-union alliances and community coalitions will continue to extend their efforts to unorganized workplaces and to join forces across national boundaries to include workplaces that have relocated. The building of cross-border linkages has begun with union militants and feminist activists in the United States, Mexico and Canada organizing against NAFTA (Moody and McGinn, 1992).

At home, grass roots initiatives aimed at eliciting government support for retraining have encouraged new forms of labour-feminist cooperation. These initiatives have focused on lobbying governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Labour advocates in the New Democratic Party have been the focal point for union activities, both provincially, where the NDP was in power, and municipally, where NDP city councillors represent the fashion district. As the discussion below indicates, some of the planning has been initiated and implemented.

Short-term programmes include English as a Second Language and basic mathematics classes for immigrant women. Immigrant workers whose previous professional or trade skills are not recognized have been helped by community based programmes for visible minority women to receive accreditation. Long-term training could include paid educational leave, similar to the collective agreements of the Canadian Auto Workers, for workers who wish to pursue more advanced degrees or certifications or for workers whose training would directly benefit the employer (Gindin, 1991).

In the Spring of 1991, the FILC announced a Toronto Sews project using the City's new Fashion Incubator. This project involves a training facility with the latest state-of-the-art technology to provide technical support to young designers from Toronto fashion schools. In June 1991, David Sobel and Susan Meurer completed a consultant's report for the FILC in which they concluded that more hands-on training programmes in the workplace are needed, not only for designers and middle managers, but also for rank and file workers who wish to upgrade their skills without losing pay. In an unprecedented move, two major international unions in the industry, that were formerly rivals, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers' Union and the ILGWU, have pooled their resources to share in the development of the Apparel and Textile Action Centre. They are pressuring manufacturers to take advantage of federal and provincial grants to provide paid hands-on training in the workplace.

In another development, the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, in conjunction with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, have organized to protect immigrant women employed as homeworkers through a homeworkers' registry. They have targeted Canadian and multinational retailers in a labour-feminist coalition, established to lobby the provincial government to improve employment standards legislation for low-wage homeworkers.20 Training programmes with childcare facilities will be an important outcome of the provincial labour strategy.

The increase in factory closures signalled the need for the Workers' Information Action Centre, founded by the City of Toronto, to inform non-unionized employees of their legal rights under the provincial Employment Standards Act. The plight of non-unionized workers, employed under near sweat-shop conditions, was described in the Report of the Inquiry Into Garment Factory Closings. The inquiry, held by the BASIC Poverty Action Group with the assistance of the Woodgreen Community Centre in Toronto, included legal specialists, prominent journalists, municipal councillors and organizers from the labour movement to hear and publicize the testimony of workers employed at Lark Manufacturing, a contract shop in the East End of Toronto which was threatened with closure.


No single managerial strategy exists in the Canadian garment industry. In a transitional phase, the industry is unevenly developed with multinational interests existing alongside family-owned businesses and non-union contract shops. Following the introduction of the FTA, there has been a dramatic decline in union membership. New technology, economic integration with the US and a deepening recession have contributed to the present economic malaise in Canadian manufacturing. In the face of a growing economic crisis that shows no signs of improving, garment and textile unions have struck alliances with each other and with community organizations in lobbying efforts to increase immigrant women workers' access to government retraining programmes. The struggle to develop an educational strategy with a feminist anti-racist orientation continues to be a major concern for union militants and labour educators concerned about the class-bias of current retraining programmes.


1 I am grateful to Chris Huxley, Swasti Mitter and Sheila Rowbotham for their encouragement and helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. I am especially indebted to the men and women from the union for their participation in this study. Their names have been fictionalized. Special thanks to the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union for their cooperation and to the owners of the factories who allowed this study to be undertaken. The research was made possible with seed money from the McMaster University Research Board, a postdoctoral fellowship and Canada Research Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, held at York University, and by a grant from Labour Canada, from the Technology Impact Research Fund (TIRF). Of course, the final responsibility remains mine.

2 The ILGWU wanted to understand how technological innovation affected the working lives of its members. Grants from TIRF, under the federal government auspices of Labour Canada, offered the unique opportunity for academics to work with unions to develop labour-related research projects on new technology. The focus on new technology is part of a broader project that involves a book on industrial restructuring with specific reference to the garment industry. The book addresses a number of related themes including the implications of economic integration, gender and skill, systems of wage payment and the social policy implications of restructuring as it relates to health and safety issues.

3 Toronto Star, 26 November, 1966: p. 64.

4 See Seward (1990). Recent demographic trends indicate a decline in immigration from Europe, with new immigrants coming from Asia (including East Asia, South Asia and South East Asia), the Caribbean and Latin America (Simmons, 1990; Frideres, 1992).

5 The Globe and Mail, 25 November 1986: B22.

6 Financial Times of Canada, 9 December 1991: p. 12.

7 The Globe and Mail, 24 January 1991: B9.

8 The Globe and Mail,9 April 1992: B9.

9 The Globe and Mail, 1 March 1986 A10.

10 Report on Business Magazine, November 1991: pp. 70-80.

11 Winnipeg Free Press, 25 May 1985: p. 5.

12 Winnipeg Free Press, 26 January 1985: 3; 24 January 1985: pp. 1, 4.

13 The Globe and Mail, 25 May 1987: B5.

14 Apparel, September-October, 1987: p. 27.

15 Style, 15 April 1991: pp. 1,4.

16 Style, 21 January 1991: p. 3.

17 The Globe and Mail, 23 December 1991: B4; see also Sharpe, 1993.

18 The name of this factory has been fictionalized.

19 For a discussion of the distinction between 'multiskilling' and 'multitasking', especially in relation to the issue of skills development, see CAW-Canada Research Group on CAMI (1993).

20 Now Magazine, 2-8 December 1993: pp. 17-18.


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