‘A Stitch in Time’ Exhibition
In the 1990s, Winnipeg’s garment industry continued to grow and prosper, relying predominantly on immigrant labour. By 1995, it was Manitoba’s second largest industry. Its fortunes were ensured by the 1974 World Trade Organization’s Multifibre Arrangement, which placed quotas on the importation of certain textile and clothing products and thus protected local production. However, with the implementation of the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Textile and Clothing in 1995, quotas were phased out and completely eliminated by 2005 allowing for the influx of cheaper goods from China, India, and other countries. This had a serious impact on Winnipeg’s garment industry. Many companies were forced to shut down local plants, lay off workers, and move overseas to meet the competition from countries with lower labour costs, non-unionized working conditions, and minimal or non-existent health and safety standards. Due to the elimination of quotas, the Manitoba Fashion Institute, which served as the industry’s representational body and a major training centre for sewing machine operators, was forced in 1995 to close its office.
Job losses in Winnipeg’s garment industry have been dramatic. In the 1990s, there were some 9,000 workers employed in 115 companies; by 2005, the number had dropped to 5,000 workers in 90 countries. Particularly hit were sewing machine operators. As Raymond Wiest noted, “it will be largely immigrant garment workers who have felt, and will continue to feel, the effects of the removal of quotas on imported garments. Ironically, most garment manufacturing jobs are being relocated to South Asia, including some of the countries that immigrant workers in Winnipeg originally left to find work here.”
In her study Garment Production in Canada: Social and Political Implications, Roxana Ng emphasized the impact of the elimination of quotas, but also identified the shift in control from manufacturers to large retail chains such as Walmart and Superstore. Many of these chains have fragmented garment production by subcontracting work to contractors who hire home-based workers at minimal pay. This is especially the case in ladies’ and children’s wear, which are subject to seasonal fluctuation and regular changes in fashion. Instead of investing in technology to increase efficiency and productivity, contractors in these sectors draw on cheap, largely female, immigrant labour. This forces Canadian manufacturers to scale down production and reduce their work force.