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Shedding light on the rag trade

The Story

They would get headaches from having to stitch in the dark. Garment workers in Canada's 1930s rag trade or schmatte industry worked under deplorable conditions, in dimly lit factories where regulated hours were unheard of. Refusing to put in overtime meant you were out of a job, which was devastating to families already impoverished by the Great Depression. In this CBC Radio clip, three garment workers, Fanny Levine, Jean Sable and Eva Newmark, recount the grim conditions of the schmatte industry in the years before it was unionized. 

Medium: Radio
Program: Identities
Broadcast Date: June 24, 1979
Guests: Fanny Levine, Eva Newmark, Jean Sable
Host: Warren Davis
Duration: 5:15
Photo Credit: Ronny Jaques / NFB. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada

Did You know?

• In the first half of the 20th century, the garment industry was notorious for its low wages, poor working conditions, and for employing women, children and immigrants. The first large garment union representing immigrant women's rights was organized in 1900 by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
• Before this, only independent tailors were known to organize in craft unions.

• In 1911, of the nearly 3 million Canadians in the workforce, 366,629 were women. The majority of workers in the textile industry were women; in 1911 the industry employed 67,508 women and 34,976 men.
Schmatte (often spelled shmata) is Yiddish for "rag" or "garment." The Canadian Oxford Dictionary's etymology for the word schmatte is from the Polish szmata also meaning rag.

• In the book Sweatshop Strife, published in 1992, author Ruth Frager writes that 46 per cent of workers in the 1930s in Toronto's garment industry were Jewish.
• She also found that the majority of garment shops were run by Jewish owners.
• In another book Angels of the Workplace (1997), author Mercedes Steedman explains that Jewish immigrants were long attracted to work in the garment industry. This was because new immigrants found comfortable surroundings in an industry where people spoke their language. For example, in 1909 all but one pants shop was in Jewish hands, and there were 15,000 Jewish people in the rag trade.
• Female Jewish workers also tended to prefer working in large modern shops. At the time, Steedman wrote that Jewish women despised working in traditional workrooms.


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