Thursday 14 January 2016

Eaton's Garment Factories: Early Sweat Shops

"We control the manufacture of garments in our own factories.  Every step until the garments are finished and delivered to you is directed toward saving you money." (Eaton's)

By 1931, the year my grandparents got married, Eaton's had 19 acres of factories in which it employed 6411 employees working on 5000 electric machines.  These high quality garments would then be sold in the Eaton's stores.  In the pre-World War I days, customers would mail in their measurements and a clerk would match them with the correct size.  These custom made garments were made by professional dressmakers.  In 1911, Eaton's employed 10,000 such dressmakers.
However, within a decade, the number of dressmakers dropped from 10,000 to 5,000 as ready made clothing replaced the custom made garments. 

Whereas in the Eaton's stores, the employees tended to be well treated by the management, this was not the case in the factories, which were "ill lighted, unheated and unventilated".  Workers were forbidden from speaking while they worked as time was of the essence.  During the Great Depression, people could only afford basic clothing and the demand for garments plummeted.  Layoffs hit the garment industry and the workers' pay decreased by 30 to 50 %.    A woman who would make 12 voile dresses for $3.60 now received only $1.75 for the same product. 

The Industrial Union of Needle Trade Workers, a Communist organization, was formed to combat the poor treatment of garment workers.  A Royal Commission was established to investigate the problem further.  Garment worker Annie Wells testified that a dress that was sold for $1.59 she would receive only 9 1/2 cents.  The commission conclude that "labour and wage conditions in [the needle trades] are such as to merit the most emphatic condemnation."  The commission made the public aware of the plight of garment workers.

Finally, in 1931, the Eaton's factory workers wetn on strike.  Women carrying placards on the picket line were harassed by a private eye hired by the company.  Replacement workers were imported from England.  Some striekrs were arrested by the city police.  It would not be until the Second World War that the unions gained a stronger foothold and the garment makers' wages increased.

Meanwhile, garments which were originally made in Canada started to be manufactured in other countries, such as China, for a cheaper wage.


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