CBC Digital Archives

The garment industry: working at night

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.

Illegal garment operations are being set up in garages and basements across the Quebec countryside. Contractors of le travail au noir pay workers 75 cents an hour to work into the night. The aim is to produce cheaper clothing to compete with overseas imports made by people working for low wages.

As heard in this CBC Television report, Montreal's union shops have buckled under the foreign trend and are being replaced by downtown sweatshops. 
Le travail au noir translates from French as "work in the dark."
• The term was used in France and other French-speaking countries, such as Algeria and Switzerland, to describe illegal working conditions in the 1930s. The notion, which is akin to "working under the table," refers to illegal work of any kind, especially by immigrant workers without papers.
• A severe recession in the 1980s weakened the ability of unions to bargain with employers.

• Companies also had the option of contracting out cheaper Mexican labour in an era when free trade was becoming more common.
• In the first half of 1983, clothing imports rose 25 per cent.
• In 1983, Gilles Gauthier, International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) president, said 100 garment shops had shut down in Quebec in the past year and a half due to Asian imports.

• Dominion Textile, the company referred to in this clip, had sold 13 of its 26 factories by 1986 due to the 1980s recession.
• Most of the closures were in Quebec and were exacerbated by repeated and unresolved disputes between management and unions in that province.
• A 2004 Globe and Mail article reported that women working in Lesotho made as little as $4.47 a day. One of the garments they were working on was being sold at Old Navy for $111.

• It also said workers were "row upon row" in a "smelly, congested industrial export zone."
• For more on the free trade deal, see the CBC Archives topic Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: Oct. 20, 1983
Guest(s): Sid Abrahams, Paul Blondin, Norman Moyer, Irwin Steinberg, Marée Trottier, Saul Victor
Reporter: Trish Wood
Duration: 15:32

Last updated: May 6, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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