It’s been five years since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh that killed 1138 garment workers. Response to the catastrophe reverberated worldwide – these were workers making products for fast fashion retailers – as workers and activists called big box companies to task for their lack of transparency about where their clothing is produced. In the years since then, only a small fraction of the list of large fashion retailers has willingly agreed to make their suppliers public, as many continue to work with garment factories in places where workplace safety and environmental standards allow for cost-cutting measures at the expense of both workers and the natural environment. Offshoring the production of garments has made it easier for consumers in North America to ignore the realities of where, how, and by whom fast fashion is made – out of sight, out of mind.
This year, the Fashion Revolution movement calls for designers, companies and consumers to ask #WhoMadeMyClothes to bring attention back to the realities of garment workers in the industry in 2018. Exploitative practices, low wages, poor working conditions, and environmental damage characterizes the industry today; how would the answer to this question change if we asked #WhoMadeMyClothes 100 years ago?
An Industry Close to Home
Unlike in today’s global marketplace, it was not always the case that clothing retailers could obscure the foreign origins of their goods. If you had walked into a department store in Montreal in 1918, chances are that the clothing you purchased would have been made within a few kilometres of where it was sold. For most of its modern history, Montréal was the centre of the garment industry in Canada, and, as a result, the garment industry was the largest employer in the city from 1871 until the 1920s. At the turn of the twentieth century, many large garment factories employed thousands of workers right in the heart of the city; one such factory can still be found at the corner of Duluth and St. Laurent. Garment production remained a major industry until the 1990s, with many thousands of workers in large factories and smaller sweatshops producing ready-to-wear suits, dresses, hats, and shoes sold throughout Canada .
(Edmonton Journal, October 18, 1912)
The expanding middle class in the late nineteenth century created a base of consumers looking to buy off-the-rack clothes at affordable prices that changed with the seasons. No longer were clothes being made by a single tailor – by the 1880s, the production of clothing was industrialized and compartmentalized, with workers performing single tasks along a chain of production that transformed a garment from uncut cloth to a suit on a rack. “Fast fashion” was born.
This labour was considered “deskilled,” and, apart from a small number of tasks performed by men making an hourly wage, was done mostly by women who were paid based on how many pieces they sewed. Piecework allowed for garment manufacturers to pay their workers only when demand was high. As such, job security was inexistent, hours were long and unpredictable, and pay was extremely low. Most of the women performing piecework - “needleworkers” - for large garment companies were new arrivals in the city, both French Canadian women from rural Quebec, and recent immigrants, many Jewish, from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. With few other alternatives available for women to make money around the turn of the century, many had no option but to find work in the garment industry .
(Men and women sewing in a cluttered shop, New York, ca. 1900.
Much like today, the industry was characterized by low pay for workers, especially women, high volume production, and difficult working conditions. Rose Esterson, born in Kiev in 1897, immigrated to Montreal in 1925 and took a job in a garment factory. She recalls her experience in the industry:
“I come here in 1925 and then it begins a very, very bad time for me. I used to go to work for one dollar a week or $1.50 a week and I am supposed to support my three children, three daughters, and pay rent, and pay gas, and pay light, and pay other things. I lived in a house with my mother. The rent was twenty-two dollars a month.” (From Seemah Berson, I Have A Story To Tell You, 2010)
On the Picket Line
Needleworkers worked either in a factory, in a small contract sweatshop, or at home for meagre pay. This practice of sending cut cloth out of the factory to be sewn in private homes or shops was known as “subcontracting,” and was central to the ability for large garment firms to continue paying their workers very little for their labour - there was always somebody else nearby who was willing to work for less.
Because of the fractured nature of the garment industry, union organizing was a challenge in the early twentieth century. Labour organizers had to make explicit appeals to encourage women to join unions, as many did not have access to centralized workplace organizations because they worked from home or small shops. Despite this adversity, thousands of workers, many of them women, engaged in acts of visible protest and labour organizing in the early twentieth century.
As early as 1912, workers called for an end to piecework pay and the subcontracting system as these exploitative systems upheld the worst pay disparities and poorest working conditions in the industry.
(Montreal Daily Star, February 24, 1910)
Female garment workers who went on strike not only took on their employers in an effort to combat the low wages and dangerous working conditions they toiled under, but also forced garment union leadership to consider women valuable members of male-dominated workers’ unions, thus asserting their place “among the union’s best strikers” . Especially in Quebec, where the cultural and social power of the Catholic Church played a powerful role in the upholding of traditional gender roles, public protest was a direct challenge to societal norms and expectations about women’s role in the public sphere .
But change was slow and hard to come by – there were over 100 strikes in the garment industry between 1910 and 1930 alone, and the piecework system persisted as a central pillar of the industry well into the 1970s and 1980s .
(Montreal Witness, June 24, 1912, courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Montreal)
The men and women who worked in Montreal’s garment industry between the 1870s and the 1990s constantly and consistently challenged the system they worked in. Poor working conditions and low pay were a lived reality for garment workers here in this city, particularly for immigrant and working class women. As unions strengthened and provincial and federal laws around wages and working conditions in Canada improved dramatically, big companies that produced large amounts of cheap apparel found their profit margins could be maintained if they moved production offshore. Fashion retailers thus turned to labour forces in developing countries that were not yet protected by strong unions or regulations.
Bringing the garment industry back home
The issues facing the modern garment industry have been the same since the advent of mass clothing production in the nineteenth century. Today, however, the realities of the industry are much less visible to the average consumer than they were at a time when the needleworkers making the dresses sold at Ogilvy’s were the same ones picketing outside City Hall. It is this geographic shift that makes it all the more important to consider the question #WhoMadeMyClothes in 2018.
Though garment production and its damaging human and environmental repercussions appear to be problems that fall outside of our borders, it does not mean that change is outside of our sphere of influence as consumers. Consumers have the power to ask for accountability and transparency from international fast-fashion brands: calling for responsible and ethical clothing production can help change the experience of garment industry workers worldwide. Complicity in the exploitation of garment workers abroad, especially women, ignores the many decades of struggle and garment industry activism right here at home.
- Mercedes Steedman, Angels of the Workplace: women and the construction of gender relations in the Canadian garment industry, 1890-1940 (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997).
- Robert McIntosh, “Sweated Labour: Female Needleworkers in Industrializing Canada,” Labour / Le Travail 32 (Fall 1993): 105-138.
- Julie Podmore, St. Lawrence Blvd. as ‘Third City’: Place, Gender and Difference along Montréal’s ‘Main,’ PhD thesis, (McGill University: 1999), 123.
- Mercedes Steedman, “Skill and Gender in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 1890-1940,” in On the Job: Confronting the Labour Process in Canada, ed. Craig Heron and Robert Storey (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986).
- Gerald Tulchinsky, Branching Out: The Transformation of the Canadian Jewish Community (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing, 1998)
About the Author
Kate Bauer is a Masters student at McGill University and a research fellow at the Museum of Jewish Montreal. She has worked on research about early clothing industry strikes in Montreal and gives tours about the history of Montreal’s garment industry. This article is a brief summary of a tour given by the Museum of Jewish Montreal - more information can be found at imjm.ca.