Ethnicity & Gender

‘A Stitch in Time’ Exhibition

Ethnicity & Gender

Since its inception, women and immigrants have been vital to the development of the garment industry. Until the 1940s, the industry had absorbed Jewish, Ukrainian and other eastern European immigrants. Entering into the 1950s women made up 80% of the industry’s total work force, and that percentage remained unchanged in the 1980s. In 1982, there were 81 firms with 6,468 workers of whom 82% were women. Approximately 60% of these women came from China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Some also came from Italy, Greece, and Portugal. Beginning in the 1950s, the number of Jewish garment workers decreased dramatically as the children of the early immigrants became university educated and opted for professional and semi-professional careers. A significant number of present-day factory owners are Jewish, though, and may be the second or even third generation in a family to be involved in the business.

By 2004, 94% of all sewing machine operators were women. Skilled or not, women were paid less than men, often earning below what the government had established as the minimum health and decency standard or living wage. Many of the so-called “unskilled” workers were accomplished sewers and tailors in their countries of origin, able to construct complete outfits. In Canada, however, they were introduced to an industrialized factory system that often compartmentalized the work process into single tasked, monotonous routines.

In the late 1960s, the industry worked in tandem with the provincial and federal governments to attract labourers from Italy and the Philippines to fill mostly dead-end or lowly jobs that Canadians would not accept. One of the key recruiters was Meyer Klapman of Peerless Garment, who made three trips to both Italy and the Philippines, which resulted in the hiring of 700 workers. By the late 1970s, it was estimated that about 26% of the approximately 3000 workers hired during the decade were from overseas.

Government involvement was pivotal to the industry’s growth in terms of recruitment of overseas labour, productivity, and profits. Subsidies were provided to ensure a climate conducive to growth. These included grants for technology, various loans from the federal and provincial government, wage subsidies, tax shelters, import restrictions (quotas), relaxation of immigration laws, federal and provincial vocational and other training programs, provisions for cheap hydroelectric rates, and reduced or low municipal taxes.

Yet, as Annalee Lepp, David Millar, and Barbara Roberta noted in their 1987 study on Winnipeg’s garment industry “very little of these subsidies, from the public purse and therefore from taxpayers’ pockets, has trickled down to the workers. If unions or governments demand improved wages and conditions, the bosses threaten that the whole industry will run away. The old sweatshops have been replaced by modern de-skilling and speed-ups. Women, who form the bulk of the work force, have gained little in real wages over the last thirty years. They are largely confined to the low-paid jobs, easily laid off, and easily replaced by new waves of immigrants.”