11. A Woman, A Mother, A Fighter

      Sweatshops and immigrant women





“During the 1960s, sweatshop industries in Canada took advantage of many immigrant women because of their vulnerability, desperation, and lower social status.”


Imagine entering a world dramatically different from the one you just left. Imagine having to struggle, persevere, and fight to survive in a new and foreign land while overcoming constant obstacles. My grandmother immigrated to London, Ontario, Canada, in 1965 with her husband and two small children. Having no knowledge of the English language, very little money, and knowing no one, she was forced to make a life for her family and for herself using the only employable skill she had: sewing. Growing up in a large family with very little money, my grandmother perfected her skills in knitting, sewing, and crocheting at a very early age. Upon arriving in Canada, she had to immediately obtain a job and, because she had no other employable skills and faced an obvious language barrier, her sewing skills were put into use, and she was employed at Kayser-Roth as a sewing hand.

Kayser-Roth was a sewing factory that produced a wide range of different clothing pieces, including bras, underwear, and bathing suits, all of which were to be eventually sold in larger department stores. She began working for seventy-five cents per hour, forty-eight hours per week. At this time, all of the sewing hands employed at Kayser-Roth were women, most of whom were immigrants. Quotas were expected to be met within specific time frames, and this dictated how much money, on top of her hourly wage, my grandmother made in a day. These quotas created a constant pressure on her to work faster and harder in an attempt to fulfill them and to make more money.

My grandmother – and many other women like her – was taken advantage of, not only because of her status as an immigrant, but also because of her desperate need to support her family and lack of knowledge of a new and foreign place. Nancy Green encapsulates this idea in a quote from her article entitled “Women and Immigrants in the Sweatshop: Categories of Labour Segmentation Revisited.” She states, “certain factors are specific to the newly arrived: the importance of quick access to a first job, the advantage of working among one’s own, where traditions and customs can more easily be maintained, and where language is no barrier” (423). This statement directly describes what was most important to my grandmother when arriving in Canada: obtaining a job, which for most immigrants, is often within their own community. During the 1960s, sweatshop industries in Canada took advantage of many immigrant women because of their vulnerability, desperation, and lower social status. My grandmother is a clear example of this and her story represents the many difficulties she faced not only as an immigrant working within the sweatshop industry, but as a woman as well.

The term “sweatshop,” as Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, an advocate of immigrant and movements representing women of colour, describes, “was initially coined during the industrial revolution in the 1880s and 1890s to describe the subcontracting system of labour” (4). This system allowed manufacturing companies to take on large garment orders and sub-contract these orders to their factory employees, often at extremely low wages. By the 1920s in Canada, women dominated the garment industry, and industrial development and innovation encouraged growth in retail markets (Steedman 9). This new industry relied heavily on women and immigrants, who helped create a labour force (Ibid.). Class and cheap immigrant labour had a tremendous influence on the garment and textile industry and both were often exploited and capitalized on (Steedman 1–2). As Mercedes Steedman, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Laurentian University states, “immigrant women, limited by language and cultural differences, had a narrow range of occupational choices” (21). This quote is very true for most immigrants, especially my grandmother. She had no knowledge of the English language and no valuable work experience. Therefore, when my grandmother arrived in Canada, she desperately needed to help support her family and, as her only “useful” skill was sewing, had no other option but to begin working in a garment factory.

The textile and garment industry in Canada in the 1950s and 1960s functioned to serve the domestic market more than the export market (NICB 12). As the National Industrial Conference Board states with regard to the Canadian textile industry during the mid-1950s, “the market for textile products in Canada reflects the demands of a diversified economy with a high standard of living in close proximity to the United States” (12). As the market grew during the 1950s and 1960s, the demand for apparel and domestic and industrial fabrics grew as well. The industry experienced, as Rianne Mahon, a professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Carleton University, terms it, “boom conditions” during the 1950s and 1960s (45). By the mid-1960s, however, Japan and other low-wage producers took hold of nearly one-third of the industry (Mahon 46). Canada’s textile industry was one of the first sectors affected by low-wage import competition and eventually became heavily reliant and dependent on more powerful and capitalist economies, such as the United States (Mahon 6). During the 1960s in North America, women accounted for two-thirds of the total labour market growth (Moore 20), confirming the fact that more and more women were beginning to enter the workforce in hope of supporting their families. Mahon argues, “by the 1870s, industrial capitalism had taken root in Canada and had given birth to an industrial proletariat” (8). This idea of “class power”, or a hierarchy based on status, only grew stronger and more powerful with time (Mahon 11). Because labourers were seen as subordinate and less powerful, their labour was seen as simply a commodity for the capitalists to use and abuse as they pleased (Mahon 33). During the 1960s, textile industries employed around 12.5 percent of the manufacturing workforce, and in 1966, employment peaked at 205,400 employees (Pestieau 4). Ontario and Quebec accounted for 20 percent of all manufacturing employment (Pestieau 11). Today, as Roxana Ng, a professor at the University of Toronto notes, “Canada is the eighth largest provider of manufacturing jobs, and an important employer of women and immigrants. The garment work force is comprised of about 50 per cent immigrants and 76 per cent women” (74).

Women have been at the center of the garment industry since its creation, and as Steedman argues, “their labour has always been an essential component” (1). They were a fundamental element in the industry’s initial development as well as in its later progression (Ross 116). Prior to the creation of garment industries, women had long been situated within the home and domestic sphere, caring for their family and children (Steedman 12). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, more and more women began working both inside and outside of the home. Most females turned to what Dahlia Moore, a professor at the College of Management in Israel, defines as “female-typed occupations”, which are “an extension of the female family role and were seen as natural for women” (22). This is why women accounted, and still do account, for most of the employees of garment industries. Sewing, knitting, crocheting, and clothing in general are directly tied to the family sphere and home, which is why the garment industry is almost always seen as a “female-type occupation.”

This idea of “female-typed occupations” can be directly linked to the creation of a gendered division of labour. Women are able to employ the skills they have learned in the home and domestic setting to the garment industry (Ng 74). Ethel Brooks, a professor in the Sociology Department at The State University of New Jersey, agrees with the idea of the garment industry being a gendered sphere, arguing, “in garment factories throughout the world, women make up the majority of the workforce” (18). She terms the garment factory a “feminized shop floor”(18). Moore believes that “the division and ascription of statuses with relation to sex seems to be basic in all social systems. All societies prescribe different attitudes and activities to men and women” (16). This quote is very interesting because Moore claims that a gendered division of labour not only separates a male and female working sphere but also differentiates attitudes and statuses based on those spheres. Moore also claims that during the mid 1950s to1960s, women were thought, purely based on gender, to carry a lower social status and therefore were assigned “lower jobs.” This is why the garment industry has been, and continues to be, associated with gender, inequality, and sexual discrimination. Because the garment industry employed mostly females, much of the work done by women in these factories was assumed to be unskilled labour (Charles 18). Women and the work they produced were under-valued and unappreciated because they were seen in this light.

During the early 1940s, as Steedman states, “occupational segregation by gender served to regulate skill distinctions” (51). A woman in the 1950s, employed within a garment factory, was assumed to carry no distinctive skills or capabilities, and this idea was purely based on the assumption that because she is a woman, she holds a lower social status and therefore must be an unskilled worker. At the beginning of the garment industries invention and throughout its progression, the idea that women were often associated with a lower status and employed within these factories resulted in women being subjected to many hardships, abuses, and unfair treatment.

The notion that textiles and garments are associated with women continues in today’s society. As Brooks argues, “in the twenty-first century, garment factories are still sites of feminine labour, and garment production continues to be seen as women’s work” (16). My grandmother continues to have a gendered idea about the home and family because of the way she was raised and taught from a young age. Growing up in a working-class family in Italy, my grandmother learned many “female-type occupations.” She sewed clothes for her brothers and sisters, prepared meals, and kept the home in order. Because she was expected to stay and work within the home, she was only able to attend school until grade three and was then kept in the home to tend to her feminine responsibilities. When my grandmother immigrated to Canada during the 1960s, she faced many drawbacks based on her ethnic background.

Inequality based on ethnicity was and continues to be a major problem within garment industries along with gender inequalities. Because of the vulnerability of immigrant workers, employers prefer hiring them because they often keep quiet about the abuses and difficulties they endure within the factory or sweatshop (Foo 2182). For example, when I asked my grandmother what her most difficult challenge was while working for Kayser-Roth, she did not complain about the hours, wages, repetitive days, or impossible quotas. She immediately responded by saying: “not speaking English.” Anytime she had a question or needed help, she had no way of communicating it to her managers, and she was constantly being yelled at to work harder and to produce more product. The effects of this language barrier were obviously very difficult for my grandmother to endure and had the potential of being quite detrimental. For example, when my grandmother began working for Kayser-Roth, she was forced to learn how to operate a sewing machine unlike anything she had ever worked on. The one used by the factory made twelve-hundred stitches per minute and was activated by pressing one’s knee onto a peddle instead of a foot. Throughout her first year at the factory, she sliced her finger three times. The first time was the most severe, when a needle sliced open her fingernail. When she attempted to ask for help from her supervisors and coworkers, it was almost impossible for her to ask for cloth or tools to remove the needle because no one could understand her. When she was finally taken to the hospital, her doctor advised the factory that she needed to stay home for two weeks to recover. He could not explain this to her because she could not understand him. The factory neglected to inform her of her entitled sick leave and she began work the very next day. For my grandmother, and many other immigrant women like her, communication played a central role as a constant obstacle she was forced to overcome.

Lora Jo Foo is President of Sweatshop Watch, a coalition comprised of twenty U.S. organizations who work together to eliminate the horrible conditions present within many garment factories. Foo argues, “because immigrants often have limited English-speaking abilities, language barriers and cultural obstacles limit their work options” (2182). Because of the strong language barrier my grandmother faced, she was taken advantage of constantly. The language barrier presented daily struggles, limiting her ability to converse with fellow employees, supervisors, and managers. She claims it was a struggle simply asking for supplies or if she could go to the restroom. She attempted once, with a translator, to ask for a raise when she realized from fellow Italian employees that another woman, who had been working at Kayser-Roth for a shorter period of time and doing the same job as her, was making more money. She was immediately refused by her boss and never attempted to ask again. Every day for her was a struggle and after speaking with her about the factory, it is very clear that the days never got easier. Despite the low wages, long hours, and constant pressures she often felt, she had no other option but to accept the job at Kayser-Roth as a sewing hand. Immigrants make up a large percentage of the work force within garment industries, and factories continue to grow and prosper because of their continuous supply (Foo 2182).

Green argues that “the story of immigrant labour only reinforces the story of women’s work” (413), claiming that both are intertwined and tightly connected. Many variables contribute to the fact that immigrants, especially female immigrants, help create a beneficial workforce. Their vulnerability and thus willingness to work in low-skilled and low-paid entry-level jobs plays a crucial role in the high employment rate of immigrant workers within garment industries (Foo 2182). Because there is such a competitive financial aspect of garment industries, employers often seek out inexperienced and therefore vulnerable workers, who will work for low wages (Collins 922). Unfortunately, this has often led to the oppression and exploitation of female immigrant workers (Charles 1). As Robert Ross, Director of International Studies Stream and Professor of Sociology at Clark University argues, “immigrants are often blocked in their ability to claim well-paid jobs: by education (or lack of it), by language issues, and by unfamiliarity with their new surroundings” (116). The working conditions of sweatshops are also an important factor, in Green’s opinion, when looked at with regard to immigrant workers. Shockingly, she claims, “sweatshop investigators, from the turn of the century to the present have often blamed cutthroat competition, low wages, and poor conditions on immigrants themselves, correlating dirty shops with unkempt newcomers” (423). This is not only blatant discrimination and a racist-based ideology, but also enforces the idea of inequality within garment factories. Immigrant women have suffered, and many continue to suffer hardships everyday and “have consistently filled the bottom rungs of the already low labour hierarchy” (Green 427), and the garment industry is one of the strongest examples of this. Building on the idea of a gendered-division of labour, there is also a highly prominent ethnic division of labour present within garment factories. Many individuals are judged purely based on their ethnic background and are employed accordingly, creating an ethnic division of labour, which reinforces discrimination and inequality (Chin 23).

Employers of sweatshop industries use people, mainly women, to benefit from the thousands of garments their employees sew every day. They are interested only in profiting and do this through cheap labour, a large number of workers, and unsanitary working conditions. As Green argues, “women’s work and immigrant labour have both been constructed by the industry in order to serve its faddish, fashion, and flexible needs” (412). Employers go to great lengths to save money so they are able to make money in the end. Frequently, when my grandmother worked at the Kayser-Roth factory, they would receive an order, for example, for a thousand pairs of medium sized women’s underwear. If they only had a thousand pairs of large sized women’s underwear, they would make the women remove the size tag and re-sew a medium sized tag on in its place. Instead of correctly producing what was ordered and paid for by the larger cooperation or store, to save money and time, they would cheat the buyer and profit from it. Employers often create strict work schedules and production lines to hold complete control and power over their employees and business (Chin 4). This allows supervisors, managers, and owners to create a predictable and fully controlled atmosphere. The more employees a factory has, the more clothing pieces it can produce, the cheaper the wages are that it must pay and the higher the profit. A foreign immigrant entering a new land, with very little money and no connections, will take whatever they can get as long as they are able to make some amount of money, and sweatshop employers know this. They realized the desperation that many female immigrants had during the 1960s, and they capitalized on these people.

In the many years my grandmother worked for Kayser-Roth, she recalls taking only one sick day. She was never entitled to compensation for missed workdays due to an illness, she never received a raise, and she never received any type of support, respect, or gratitude for her hard work and diligence. During her early years in Canada, working in a factory, she remembers feeling, as she says, like a piece of garbage. It is unfortunate that despite the amount of hard work and effort she put into her job, she still felt inadequate. Undoubtedly, because of her inability to speak and understand English, her status as an immigrant, and being a woman during the 1960s, she was taken advantage of in many ways and for many years. Although conditions within some factories have improved and various labour laws and enactments protecting employees have been implemented, many sweatshop factories still exist all over the world today. Foo speculates that, “the reasons for the continuation of sweatshops can be attributed to insufficient inspection staff, inadequate penalties for violations, weak labour laws and limited coordination among enforcement agencies” (2182). The abundance of individuals, not just immigrants, who are desperate to make a living for themselves or for their families are forced to endure severely dangerous and unacceptable working conditions. My grandmother, like many others then and now, worked for long hours with very low wages. She was unable to meet quotas on a daily basis from the sheer exhaustion of the day before.

Today, because of the availability of higher education and more knowledge about the sweatshop industry, opportunity and integration, many immigrants have been able to prosper (Corsi 101). Women, past and present, have truly displayed their emotional and physical strength as well as their endurance and work ethic within sweatshops and garment factories worldwide. Miriam Ching Yoon Louie makes a strong statement about female sweatshop workers, within her book entitled Sweatshop Warriors. She states, “for those of us who come from communities of colour and working-class families, these are the women without whose labour, love, sweat, and tears we would not even exist on this planet” (3). This quote truly encapsulates the argument of this essay: that not only did these women suffer severe drawbacks in many aspects of their lives, but their hard work and determination has allowed our world to continue functioning every day. Louie’s quote also attempts to speak directly to two groups of people in regard to the sweatshop industry: people of colour and working-class families. Racial minorities as well as women and immigrant families have been at the forefront of these factory jobs, and they are the reason our economy has prospered. Unfortunately, these hard-working individuals, and more specifically female workers, have not received the recognition or respect they deserve. Their wages also reflect the ill recognition of their hard work. These women deserve praise for their perseverance and emotional and physical strengths. Through all of my grandmother’s hardships, pain, struggles and feelings of hopelessness and despair, she was able to survive on her strength as a hardworking, dedicated, and deserving woman who, to this day, has never regretted working as hard as she did because it was for her family



Works Cited

Brooks, Ethel Carolyn. Unraveling the Garment Industry: Transnational Organizing and Women’s Work. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007. Print.

Charles, Ruth A. Immigrant Women’s Lives: Weaving Garment Work and Legislative Policy. New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1999. Print.

Chin, Margaret M. Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print.

Collins, Jane L. “Mapping a Global Labor Market: Gender and Skill in the Globalizing Garment Industry.” Gender and Society 16.6 (Dec. 2002): 921–940. Print.

Corsi, Edward. “Italian Immigrants and Their Children.” Annuals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 223 Minority Peoples in a Nation at War (Sept. 1942): 100–106. Print.

Foo, Lora Jo. “The Vulnerable and Exploitable Immigrant Workforce and the Need for Stregthening Worker Protective Legislation.” The Yale Law Journal 103.8 Symposium: The Informal Economy (Jun., 1994): 2179–2212. Print.

Green, Nancy L. “Women and Immigrants in the Sweatshop: Categories of Labor Segmentation Revisited.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 38.3 (Jul., 1996): 411–433. Print.

Louie, Miriam Ching Yoon. Sweatshop Warriors: Immigrant Women Workers Take on the Global Factory. Cambridge: South End Press, 2001. Print.

Mahon, Rianne. The Politics of Industrial Restructuring: Canadian Textiles. Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1984. Print.

Moore, Dahlia. Labour Market Segmentation and its Implications: Inequality, Deprivation and Entitlement. New York: Garland Publishing Inc, 1992. Print.

National Industrial Conference Board. The Canadian Primary Textile Industry. Ottawa: Royal Commission on Canada’s Economic Prospects, 1956. Print.

Ng, Roxana. “Freedom for Whom? Globalization and Trade from the Standpoint of Garment Workers.” Canadian Women Studies 74 (Spring/Summer 2002). Print.

Pestieau, Caroline. The Canadian Textile Policy: A Sectoral Trade Adjustment Strategy? Montreal: C.D. Howe Research Institute, 1976. Print.

Ross, Robert F.S. The New Sweatshops in the United States: How New, How Real, How Many, and Why? Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. Print.

Steedman, Mercedes. Angels in the Workplace: Women and the Construction of Gender Relations in the Canadian Clothing Industry, 18401940. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.



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Stephanie Liokossis is a fourth year student completing an Honors Specialization in Art History and Criticism at The University of Western Ontario. She hopes to enter the graduate program next year and complete her Masters in Art History.