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A tour through the 'garment jungle'

It was known as the rag trade: a vibrant "patchwork" of textile shops in downtown Montreal and Toronto in the 1930s. But as the Depression wore on, clothing manufacturers began to exploit workers in what were already deplorable conditions. Female immigrants sweated in dimly lit factories, working up to 70 hours a week. A large group of textile workers decided to speak out. Their courage helped improve conditions in post-Second World War garment shops, until the introduction of free trade and a recession decades later.

It has been 25 years since a unionized textile shop has gone on strike. What used to be known as the "garment jungle" is portrayed as singing with happy sounds of whirling cutting table knives and sewing machines. Toronto's textile district, in the upscale neighbourhood banking onto Spadina Avenue, bustles in its heyday, and has reportedly emerged from its sweatshop days. In this 1959 CBC Radio clip, reporter Alan Anderson tours a blouse shop where there's "a deep feeling of friendship." 
• At the turn of the century, a T. Eaton Company textile shop in the Spadina Avenue garment district employed 1,200. The workers went on strike in 1911 when management began a new system for sewing linings.

• In the 1960s and '70s, Canada's labour force grew more than any industrialized country, according to the Canadian Oxford Encyclopedia.

• For about 20 years between 1965 to 1985, Canada and Italy were tied for having the highest global averages of general workers lost to labour disputes.

• Canada's numbers of persons lost to labour disputes peaked in 1976, setting an all-time national record.

• Violent and illegal labour disputes also increased after 1960 in Ontario and Quebec. The Encyclopedia compares this era in union history to the 1930s era of turbulent management-union relations.

• In 1985, 90 per cent of Canadian textile workers were immigrant women.
Medium: Radio
Program: Cross Section
Broadcast Date: Jan. 29, 1959
Reporter: Allan Anderson
Duration: 7:25

Last updated: May 8, 2013

Page consulted on January 17, 2014

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