This Friday, Montreal’s Immigrant Workers Centre (IWC) will re-launch a campaign that resonates with so many other workers’ struggles worldwide. The offenders? Montreal-based textile and clothing companies that are trying to squeeze greater profit margins from their already profitable businesses. The sufferers? Montreal textile and clothing industry workers, most of whom are women, immigrants and “aging” according to Quebec statistics. It’s a tale of the consequences of (neo)liberalized trade agreements on the lives of marginalized groups.
Since international trade liberalization and reduced protectionism in the early to mid-1990s, the Canadian government has gradually reduced tariffs and quotas on garment imports. The Canadian border has therefore opened for cheap apparel from around the world without compensating protections for Canadian-made goods and the workers who make them. Imports have increased while domestic manufacturing has shrunk considerably, particularly in the past decade.
Between 2002 and 2005, Quebec’s textile and garment industries shed 25% of its workforce, leaving thousands without employment. These widespread lay offs are largely a consequence of companies shedding their local workforce in favour of cheaper workforces in China, Bangladesh and other poorer countries where labour rights are weak. Many of these companies justify this move by pointing to the recession, but truth be told, most of them remain highly profitable in spite of the times and in spite of a costlier Montreal workforce.
When mass lay-offs occur in Quebec, workers are legally eligible for substantial collective termination packages. However, it seems that some of these companies are slipping through a loophole: by laying off workers in small groups over an extended period of time, the company is not required to offer collective compensation. This means that the offending companies have been handing out a few pink slips at a time without warning or compensation.
The people affected by these mass lay-offs make up some of the most vulnerable segments of society and already endure higher rates of poverty than the rest of the Quebec population. Without financial support for retraining from the government, they are also unlikely to be hired elsewhere in Montreal’s shrinking textile and garment industries.
Based on the needs of these laid off workers who have approached the IWC and inspired by the hefty compensation packages the Quebec government is offering to forestry workers, the IWC has presented the provincial government with the following demands:
- Adequate compensation and retraining for workers who have been laid off after years of loyal service.
- Early retirement for workers aged fifty-five and over.
- Stronger laws to prevent companies that are already profitable from moving textile jobs overseas.
- Reform to existing social assistance programs, ensuring that families of laid off textile workers receive benefits adequate for their survival.
(Oh and in case there are Quebec politicians reading this, “retraining” entails much more than French language training!)
So how is this renewed campaign related to art? Well, this Friday, those of us working on this “Justice for Textile and Garment Workers Campaign” are hoping to fire up our local workers movement by showing a moving documentary film about another garment workers’ struggle, Made in L.A by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar. This film follows three Latina immigrant workers’ prolonged struggle for basic labour protections from the trendy clothing retailer Forever 21 in Los Angeles.
We and the event’s co-sponsor, Cinema Politica, are hoping that this documentary about other workers’ persistent struggle will inspire our Montreal-based movement to continue to pressure the Quebec government for just compensation. Let’s hope this film night gives us the juice we need to fight on for justice and political change!
(Image: video still from Made in L.A.)