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Women and Globalization

Teenage girls shoppingGlobalization & Clothes

Check out the tag on the shirt you're wearing. Chances are it was made far away from your own home. In the last hundred years clothing production has moved quickly from our own homes, to places hundreds and even thousands of kilometres away. Being able to buy clothing instead of having to make it ourselves, liberates women by giving us time to pursue other activities. The global market also offers incredible variety of styles and textiles; the beauty of cloth and design connects us to women all over the world. But clothing also connects us in more uncomfortable kinds of ways.

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A global industry
The textile and garment industries are among the most globalized of all industries. Clothing is produced in nearly every country in the world, often for sale elsewhere, and together the garment and textile industries make up the largest source of industrial employment in the world. That means 30 million people are making clothes and textiles across the globe.1 And of these 30 million, most are women.

Producing clothing and other apparel has been an important part of Manitoba's history too from the 1920s until today. But as a walk through Winnipeg's Exchange District will quickly show you, much is changing. The Canadian garment industry has been one of the industries hardest hit by economic globalization. In 1986, there were nearly 8000 people working in Manitoba's clothing industry; in 1996, that number was closer to 5000; by 2006 there were just over 2000.2 Other provinces have experienced even bigger losses. In the decade after the free trade agreements were signed more than 30,000 jobs were lost in the garment industry in Canada.3 While Manitoba companies have found market niches such as outerwear production, free trade agreements like the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have had a devastating effect on the Canadian garment industry. And once again, because most of the workers in the garment industry are women, it is women who have been hardest hit.

Sewing machine operators wanted signNot an Easy Job
Working in a garment factory has never been an easy job. Operators are not paid by the hour but rather by the number of pieces they have produced, therefore a persons' pay depends on how fast she is able to work. Engineers decide how much time should be used to produce each pocket, zipper, and sleeve. If a worker does it faster, she is operating at over 100% and gets paid more. But if it takes her longer, she is operating at less than 100% and will be paid less. If she makes a mistake, she must fix it on her own time. Although workers are still guaranteed the minimum wage, they are also subject to periodic forced layoffs and shortened weeks in times of low demand.4

Exchange District buildingDespite the low pay, the work is hard. Repetitive work such as piece work, creates serious health hazards. Repetitive strain injury and carpal tunnel syndrome are common experiences among operators, as well as chronic back and neck problems. Because of pressure to produce, workers are more reluctant to take breaks to stand up and stretch or even adjust their chairs. Samantha (see Samantha's story) spent two years working as a pattern designer in a Winnipeg garment factory. As a designer, her pay was reasonable. But Samantha says her back will probably never recuperate and walking near the factory where she used to work she still feels the stress of the demands made on both her body and mind. Free trade agreements that have developed as a result of economic globalization have meant increased stress for all those who work in this industry.

Still, garment factories have provided a major source of work for women in Manitoba and across Canada, especially new immigrants. Garment factories are places where newcomers can use the skills they have and need not speak English. Some Manitoba garment factories have offered English classes to their staff.

Free for Whom?
Free trade contributes to the loss of jobs in Manitoba by encouraging clothing manufacturers to move operations to places with lower working standards: places like China, Bangladesh, and Honduras. But free trade has done more than contribute to job loss. While wages for Manitoba garment workers have stayed virtually the same over the last 10 years, the work has not. Workers report that since the trade agreements, demands on quality have increased dramatically.5 Retailers are now free to enter factories to check on quality and can push out workers whose quality does not match the standard. In this way free trade has forced operators in Manitoba to compete directly with workers in countries with lower working standards.

Alongside the added stress of faster and higher-quality production has been a loss of opportunities for protection. A disproportionate number of jobs lost within the garment industry have been unionized jobs. By 2001 fewer than 50% of jobs in Manitoba garment factories were unionized. The real number is probably closer to 35%. In 2001 UNITE Local 459 (now UNITE-HERE Manitoba Joint Council), once the largest of the three unions representing garment workers in Manitoba, reported a loss of 2500 members since the signing of the free trade agreements.6

Women in factoryWhile work in a Manitoba garment factory is undervalued and difficult, stories from factories overseas tell an even more disturbing story. In many Asian countries including Indonesia and the Philippines, workers are lured to factories with the promise of high wages and good conditions. Impoverished rural families sometimes encourage their daughters to move to the city in search of paid work in the hope that they might be able to earn money to send home. Upon arrival, girls discover fenced 'factory cities' called Export Processing Zones (EPZs), filled with workers like themselves. Along with the typical low pay and difficult work comes impossibly long hours, forced overtime, health and safety violations, stiflingly hot factories with poor ventilation systems, and unclean drinking water or none at all. Forced pregnancy tests, sexual violence, and discrimination against workers trying to organize unions, including unjust job terminations, are also common. In Mexico Maquiladoras have sprung up along the Mexico/US border: industrial zones from which workers tell the same story of an industry that is far from glamorous.7

And have you ever wondered what's happening to all the clothes that thrift stores in Canada can't sell? Much of it is shipped to poor countries in Africa. Instead of providing clothing for poor people in African countries, first world 'garbage' merely puts local tailors and textile makers out of business, while simultaneously creating a sudden 'need' for things western in countries that have long survived quite well without.

March 8, 1908
The garment industry was one of the first industries in which women worked. Garment factories therefore became one of the key places where women began to demand their economic rights. These demands took voice in the development of International Women's Day. On March 8, 1908, needle workers in New York City went on strike demanding fair working conditions and fair pay. In 1911, a week after the first official International Women's Day, a fire in a garment factory in New York City killed 140 young women garment workers, most of them recent immigrants. This massacre was remembered in subsequent International Women's Day events. In 1912, textile workers in Massachusetts walked off the job demanding "Bread and Roses: the right to live, not simply to exist." Their demand has become "the rallying cry of the women's movement."8

Today, women in garment factories are still joining together to demand their rights.9 At the same time, the rest of us are enjoying the convenience of ready-made clothing, as well as the variety and plenty of clothing in our closets. Meanwhile Samantha is dreaming of a world where things don't have to be this way: "If we could just sew and make what we needed and actually bought what we needed, we wouldn't need so much."

Women in factoryWhat can I do?
The most important thing we can do as consumers is to ask retailers for information on the working conditions of the people who make the clothes we buy. Many retailers will not understand the question and will not have any answers. Some will be prepared with a memorized response. But an increasing number of store clerks have heard of the hazards of working in the garment industry and will be concerned like you, although they may not know what to do. Go to the customer service desk and fill out a comment card. If they don't have comment cards ask them to make one up. Be sure to ask someone to get back to you either by email, phone, or regular mail. Don't be satisfied with easy answers. Check out that what they tell you is true. And remember to tell them that you'd be willing to pay a little more for your clothes if you could be assured that the people who make them are getting paid a living wage.

Another action you can do is to form a No Sweat group in your school or community. You could organize a No Sweat fashion show or work to adopt a No Sweat buying policy in your high school, university, city or province. For information on how to engage in some of these activities and for other ideas, visit the Maquila Solidarity Network.

For a critique of international protest campaigns against sweat shops and their impacts on workers, read Unraveling the Garment Industry: Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work by Ethel C. Brooks. 2008

For other good websites on globalization and clothes see our Links page.

A great book to read to find out more of the stories behind the brand names is Naomi Klein's No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.

Global garment industry photos courtesy of Maquila Solidarity Network.


1 A Union Activists' Guide to "Stop Sweatshops" Campaigning. UNITE, 1999.
2 Statistics Canada. 1996 Census. Nation Tables. Telephone Conversation Manitoba Bureau of Statistics, March 2011.
3 Russel Kowaluk. "Stability Prevails in the Garment Industry". Statistics Canada. Catalogue No. 34-252-XIE, 1998.
4 Personal Interview. Greg Maruca, UNITE Local 459, July 2001. Telephone conversation. Ministry of Trades, Mine, and Industry, June 2001. Telephone conversation. Manitoba Fashion Institute, May 2001.
5 Factory Tour. Western Glove Works 1500 Notre Dame factory. July 2001.
6 Personal Interview. Greg Maruca, UNITE Local 459, July 2001.
7 Naomi Klein. No Logo. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2000. Lynda Yanz, Bob Jeffcott, Deena Ladd, and Joan Atlin. Maquila Solidarity Network (Canada) "Policy Options to Improve Standards for Women Garment Workers in Canada and Internationally." Status of Women Canada, 1999. "A Needle in a Haystack: Tracing Canadian Garment Connections to Mexico and Central America". Maquila Solidarity Network, 2000. See also www.maquilasolidarity.org.
8 Naomi Klein. No Logo. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2000.
9 See "Women Behind the Labels: Worker Testimonies from Central America". Maquila Solidarity Network and STITCH, 2000.


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