|Women Encounter Technology: Changing Patterns of Employment in the Third World (UNU, 1995, 356 p.)|
|7. Restructuring and retraining|
Cloakmakers in the ILGWU, primarily from eastern Europe, resisted changes to the organization of their work in 1966. A story in the Toronto Star carried the headline, 'Garment workers fight mass production'.3 Referred to as the 'Artex rebels', a dozen skilled craftsmen in Toronto protested that factory owners threatened to hire non-union labour to open a sportswear shop. The skilled tailors feared that their jobs would be lost if the conventional method of making the whole garment were to be replaced by a new section system used widely in the men's clothing industry. Their fears were gender based. At the time, new employees were mainly Italian, Greek and Portuguese immigrant women. The union struck a compromise to protect the existing cloak shops which used the conventional method, while allowing new shops in the sportswear industry to introduce the section system.
In the 1990s, the demographic characteristics of the labour force, ownership patterns, and style of work in the Canadian ladies' clothing industry have changed. Technology has been introduced as part of a massive restructuring process which has transformed the industry from top to bottom. The restructuring process is multifaceted and has proceeded with government and manufacturers working in tandem. In less successful operations, new technology has been used by management to downsize, while more successful enterprises have expanded overtime, shift work and part-time work. With an increasing reliance on technological innovation in factories whose owners could afford to modernize or received government aid to do so, the occupational structure of the workforce has shifted from both male and female skilled craft work in the cloak and dress industry, respectively, to female-dominated assembly line production, section work and industrial homework in the newly-created sportswear industry.
The restructuring process, begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s, accelerated with the passage of the FTA. During the year following the introduction of the FTA, from June 1989 to June 1990, the clothing industry lost 23,000 jobs, an 18 per cent decline in employment. The Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), the main labour federation in Canada, estimates that in the first two years under the free trade agreement with the United States, 582,000 fewer jobs were created in the Canadian economy than could be expected under average conditions (Canadian Labour Congress, 1993: 116).
Reskilling or deskilling?
Gender relations have changed at the top of the pyramid structure as well as at the bottom. Changing attitudes in business have seen more women assuming managerial positions. Daughters and wives of owners are becoming divisional heads and paid employees of the company, instead of 'helping out' fathers and brothers.
Jobs have been created in business services, warehouse distribution and import houses. A new strata of white collar clerical personnel are employed in offices of human resources management. The rationalization of the office to meet the pressure of just-in-time delivery threatens the employment of this largely non-unionized clerical workforce. Electronic data interchange systems have eliminated the need for clothing retailers to keep costly inventories. Rapid response and fast turnover to fill special orders entail a closer interface between manufacturer and retailer. The demand for increased productivity and greater flexibility is passed onto the already vulnerable white collar workforce (Dagg and Fudge, 1992).
The more skilled aspects of pattern making and grading have been taken out of the hands of male cutters to become highly trained positions for computer operators and programmers. In owner-managed factories, trusted family members, or even the owner, use computer aided design systems. A few senior cutters have been pushed into middle management positions. Some openings have emerged in the highly-paid mechanical field, positions that have been given to men (see also Cockburn, 1985).
Computer aided design and manufacturing has made it possible to design and cut patterns in Canada and transfer the assembly work to states in the United States or offshore where labour standards and wages are lower. Women are employed in the less challenging aspects of this traditionally male-dominated craft, in laying and cutting the fabric.
Automated material handling systems, used in some shops since the early 1970s, carry the work to sewing machine operators, eliminating the jobs of bundle girls. With a press of a button, a hanger drops down beside a sewing machine operator. She sews a single seam or dart and presses the button again. The automated conveyor belt transports the garment to the next operator for the next operation.
In the sewing room, young women are expected to perform more than one operation. They are rotated from job to job to meet the employer's requirement for a flexible workforce, while older workers do the same job day in and day out. An administrative apparatus based on prescribed rules and procedures, fewer supervisory personnel and the reliance on conveyors to control the pace of work has made it easier for management to track workers' performance. Electronic monitors built into the individual work stations are used to check the speed of sewing machine operators.
On the factory floor, changes in the social organization of work have given rise to new forms of wage payment. Because of the transitional character of the industry in Canada, no single method of calculating piece wages predominates in a largely piece work industry. Multinational firms have developed standardized methods of wage payment, used in subsidiary firms. More than one method for calculating the wage may exist. Workers in the cutting room may be paid by the hour, while those who work as sewing machine operators may be paid under an incentive system. Various accounting procedures are used to pay piece wages, ranging from the traditional ticket system of quality control to more complex calculations of workers' output based on the standard allowed minute. In a multi-ethnic work environment, numerically-based accounting systems increase the demand for English literacy and mathematical numeracy.
Workers' resistance to the intensification of work may take the form of individual responses such as absenteeism or job shopping. Coordinated resistance on the shop floor, such as slow downs or work stoppages, is used to enforce workers' demands for improved conditions during contract negotiations. A cutter reported that some women in his factory engaged in mischievous play, sewing garments backwards or with the stripes upside down if management practices seemed especially harsh or unfair. These activities were timed to cause the most havoc, usually when the company was under particular pressure to meet special orders or production deadlines. A shop steward reported that in her factory, where turnover was especially high, management paid workers a special bonus for recruiting family members or friends. Some workers expressed reluctance to comply with such requests when piece wages were so low.
The ethnic division of labour
Forty-five per cent of the workers in the garment industry are immigrants, the majority of whom are women whose first language is neither English nor French. The latest wave of immigration has brought visible minority women from third world countries to Canadian garment factories.4 Third world immigration is seen as part of a global restructuring of the international migration system. Canada shares with the United States, Australia and New Zealand a relative openness to ethnically diverse immigration from third world countries (Simmons, 1990). Immigrants have fled the ill effects of structural adjustment programmes or poverty in their home countries (George, 1992). Once they enter Canada, they join a labour market that is already structured both ethnically and on class lines (Li, 1988). As they look for a better life for themselves and their children, immigrant workers face new managerial strategies and government policies that threaten to take away their livelihood and the limited gains that workers have achieved in recent years.
On the factory floor, a combination of different methods have been used by clothing manufacturers to maintain control of an ethnically diverse workforce. In one factory that I toured, East Asian immigrant women from Vietnam, China and Hong Kong were assigned the 'more delicate tasks' off the assembly line. With less opportunity to earn bonuses, they reported that their take home pay was lower. Ethnicity can be used by management to favour one ethnic group over another for special treatment or privileges. Black immigrant women reported differential treatment in terms of layoffs and recall. In another factory, Italian immigrant workers with a history of union experience were laid off, while more recent Vietnamese refugees did not lose their jobs. The tolerance of ethnic traditions in the workplace may be a cooptive method of winning the confidence and loyalty of new immigrant workers. In a factory where turnover was a problem for management, Muslim workers were allowed to take time from their work to pray in the lunchroom, and were granted time off work to observe their holy days.