Scarf, Jacket, Trench-coat, Shirt and Pant are the names that five Chinese garment 'home workers' (those who work from home) have chosen for themselves. Wary about revealing their real identities, these middle-aged women have chosen the clothes they stitch to represent them as they narrate their stories in the book 'The Voices of Chinese Women Garment Home Workers'. This book has been published in September 2005 by the Toronto-based NGO Home Workers' Association (HWA), formed in 1992 to empower Chinese women garment workers.
With no job security, no benefits and no minimum pay, the garment workers have been fighting a losing battle against the growing tentacles of globalization. While the story of multinational clothing companies running sweatshops in the developing world has been told often, the HWA felt, the exploitation of garment home workers in developed countries like Canada has been ignored.
The growing percentage of cheap imports from China, India and Mexico has resulted in reduced work at low wages for these women. Clothing is a labor intensive, but low-wage, industry. In 1999, social scientist Roxanna Ng shocked many Canadians when she released the results of her research. Ng interviewed 30 garment workers in Toronto over a period of five years and concluded that the wages of sewing machine operators have not risen since the 1980s. Until then, the common perception was that sweatshops are run only in developing countries.
In 'The Voices', Jacket says she used to get Canadian $3 (US$1=Canadian $1.13) to $4 for sewing a skirt ten years ago. Now she is being paid $2.8 to $3 per piece. The five home workers earn around $7 per hour. This is less than the minimum wage of $8.25 that the government has set for garment workers. Aside from low wages, these women also get no benefits from their employers.
Helen Laiman Poon, author of 'The Voices', migrated to Canada from Hong Kong in November 2004. She started working on the book after she came to Toronto. The first round of interviews with the five women garment workers took place in February 2005. Poon says, "Although HWA had been championing the rights of Chinese garment workers for quite some time, it did not have any documentation to support the work done. Every time HWA hired a new coordinator, they had to explain everything from the beginning to that person. So a book was seen as a good documentation method, a tool for raising public awareness, and a celebration of the voices of Chinese Canadian garment workers and raise money."
In the book, the garment workers narrate how they came to Canada as "mail-order wives" (a term they use to allude to the fact that they had to marry Canadians in order to come to Canada and get permanent immigrant status). Once in Canada, they started working at home with a sewing machine. "I would like to call myself Scarf. The scarf is so changeable; it can be used as an accessory, it can keep you warm, it can be worn as a belt; all scarves look very nice. I am very skilful in garment making, very versatile, just like the scarf." This is how the most extroverted home worker introduces herself.
"Scarf is a leader. She is the most motivated and articulate of the five women. The other four tend to follow her," says Poon. Most garment workers are isolated from the outside world while sewing garments from the basements of their homes or working in factories. Getting them to agree to tell their stories has been an uphill task, as they feared retaliation from their employers in the form of reduction in work.
They were also initially suspicious of the media for fear of being targeted at their workplace. When they agreed to attend media conferences, they insisted that only their feet be shown in newspapers or television.
Poon says, "My first interview with the home workers was a singular experience. It was for the first time that these women got together and came to know that there are others who are going through similar problems, like childcare and financial insecurity. They gained power through storytelling and shared their experiences." Poon says language has been the biggest barrier for these women, as they don't know English. She says, "This prevented them from upgrading their skills or educating themselves."
A thread of commonality runs through all the narratives. Four of these women came to Canada in the 1980s after marriage. Reluctant about sending their children to childcare, they decided to work from home and take care of their children. They worked on the sewing machine after the children went to school and at night after the kids went to sleep. Working in isolation in the basements of their homes, they often had nothing more than a radio for company. All of them complain of repetitive strain syndromes such as back, shoulder, neck, knee and arm pain, as well as eye strain.
Scarf summarizes the problems of garment workers when she says, "I think the situation was much better before the 1990s. I still remember, back then garment workers were still in demand. Now most factories do not even have basic salaries. The pay is very low."
In January 2005, the Canadian government abolished all import duty on textile and garments. This has dealt a deathblow to the already dying Canadian garment-manufacturing industry. The command of the garment industry is now in the hands of retailers who have outsourced to Mexico, China and India, where labor cost is less. According to government statistics body Statistics Canada, 23,000 jobs were lost in Canada's clothing industry between 2002 and 2004.
Trench-coat says, "In China it takes only $6 or 7 to sew and deliver a shirt; and the shirt can be sold for $60 here. Therefore, globalization has a huge impact on garment workers. The only thing factories could do was to try and lower the wages of garment workers."
Presently, the five women featured in this book are either under-employed or on the verge of a lay-off. Even the membership of HWA has gone down over the past one year. While in the late-1990s, it was an association of over 300 home workers, now it has less than 100 members. Poon says, "With downsizing, the garment workers are forced to take up low paying jobs like babysitting and working as restaurant helps. Faced with language barriers, they are not able to find employment elsewhere."