Just as they did more than a century ago, newcomer women are finding work in Winnipeg’s garment industry.
After globalization nearly killed it with manufacturers moving abroad to find cheaper labour, a revival of textile product manufacturing in Winnipeg is once again giving immigrant women with sewing skills a job and a shot at the Canadian dream.
Workers like Gnouma Kourouma from Ivory Coast who came to Canada in 2015 has a job sewing cushions for Winnipeg furniture maker EQ3. Others are getting hired at places like Canada Goose sewing parkas, and Fia making automotive seat covers.
“I like sewing and I want to be professional,” said Kourouma, 35, who’d never touched a sewing machine or spoke English before resettling in Winnipeg.
They’re getting the skills and experience at The Cutting Edge, a social enterprise run by the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute above Peerless Garments on Notre Dame Avenue. With funding from the province, they’re providing industrial sewing machine training with practical English classes that are tailored to the job, said Humaira Jaleel, the institute’s chief operating officer.
The Cutting Edge is open to Winnipeg women regardless of faith who are permanent residents or Canadian born, said Jaleel. The plan is to make the training program totally self-sustaining and not reliant on any government funding, she said.
The students learn by filling orders for textile lunch bags from companies like Colibri and sewing leggings and tunics for Style & Sass by Amanda, said Rubab Fatima, marketing and sales specialist. The Cutting Edge is on the lookout for new orders from customers with a social conscience looking for Canadian-made quality, said Jaleel. Their main competition is from China, said Fatima.
A January labour market report by the federal government says there are approximately 1,000 sewing machine operators in Manitoba — mostly in Winnipeg — with “fair” job growth predicted through 2020 thanks to new positions being created and retirements. In late 2018, Canada Goose announced it is opening a third manufacturing plant in Winnipeg expected to create 700 more jobs over the next three years. Already, signs advertising for experienced sewing machine operators pop up outside factories. The pay isn’t great — ranging from minimum wage ($11.35) to $16 an hour, the report says.
But for 61-year-old Marie-Catherine Lemoto-Ounda who came to Canada from Cameroon five years ago, it’s a skill worth having that goes nicely with the jewellery and girls’ dresses that she designs and sells at craft sales. She’s one of up to eight women starting the next session of The Cutting Edge’s 26-week program next week after making the cut.
“I am happy to come here and apply my experience,” said Lemoto-Ounda. The youthful-looking woman has the manual dexterity, hand-eye co-ordination and ability to follow instructions that operations director and sewing instructor Anne-Lydie Bolay looks for. Running an industrial sewing machine is not for everyone, said the multilingual Swiss-trained instructor. Some students learn very quickly, find a job and their training space gets filled right away by the next woman on the wait list, which now stands at 20, said Bolay.
The Cutting Edge women — many who are part of the recent wave of immigrants from African and Middle Eastern countries — are helping to revive the city’s garment sector that’s more than a century old.
It began in the 1880s in response to farmers and labourers demand for work clothes suitable for the harsh prairie climate, Jodi Giesbrecht wrote in the Fall 2010 edition of the Urban History Review. It started out with family-run businesses and grew to larger mechanized factories. By 1937 they were employing 1,223 workers — 1,000 of whom were women, the vast majority being newcomers from Eastern Europe, Giesbrecht wrote in Accommodating Resistance: Unionization, Gender, Ethnicity in Winnipeg’s Garment Industry 1929-45.
“The garment industry was one of the few spheres in which female immigrants could obtain employment in Winnipeg’s discriminatory and paternalistic economy.”
Half a century ago, a recruitment drive was launched by the federal Commerce and Industry Department on behalf of the Manitoba Textiles Association to bring Filipino garment workers to Winnipeg. They were given free airfare and about $125 spending money.
By the time the recruiting drive ended in 1972, a total of 1,211 Filipino garment workers had arrived in Winnipeg.
In the decades that followed, globalization resulted in most of the garment industry jobs in Winnipeg moving overseas to places like Bangladesh.
Now it’s seeing a resurgence in Winnipeg, one of the least-expensive places in Canada to live. And when its third factory is up and running, Canada Goose said it plans to be exporting its high-end winterwear to 38 countries.