The Seam Allowance: Industrial Home Sewing in Canada
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography
Merritt Clifton was an environmental journalist and lived in Brigham, Quebec.
A lucid, documented, well-organized and up-to-date expose, The Seam Allowance was compiled from interviews with 50 women doing homework for various small clothing manufacturers in Toronto and Montreal. Although author Johnson’s conclusions are all in line with the pre-established positions of three garment workers’ unions supplying her research grants, she does explore most of the advantages of homework, as well as the hazards and financial exploitation behind her final appeal for abolishing it. Women — chiefly otherwise unskilled immigrants — are attracted to homework because it allows them to both earn an income and take care of their children at the same time; because it offers more independence in many cases than factory work; and because working conditions may be more pleasant or suited to limited knowledge of English or French than in factories. On the other hand, many find that they have to neglect their children to earn a living wage; that the work creates health hazards for themselves and their children; that the work-related stress causes other domestic problems; that irregular work assignments reduce rather than increase their ability to budget their time; and that they spend much of their time in virtual isolation. Often young children are given shares of the homework, to keep them occupied and to help win the constant race against time to complete assignments. Piecework wages are erratic and always low — although factory wages in the garment industry are also low, and although the homeworker may earn almost as much real income through avoiding income tax and pension deductions. But again, lack of pension and injury compensation benefits also keep most homeworkers in poverty.
Johnson additionally explores the regulations surrounding homework, finding that roughly two out of every three employers don’t meet present registry requirements. This means that government cannot police wage and safety regulations. Homeworkers themselves are reluctant to report infractions because they fear loss of income. She points out that while homeworkers are officially independent tradespeople in the same general class as artisans and plumbers, in fact they usually function as ex-officio employees of single firms.
Along the way, Johnson notes somewhat parenthetically that many of the employers are themselves making only marginal incomes, and have often had to abandon conventional garment factories because they couldn’t meet the overhead in the face of competition from more modern domestic production systems and cheaper labor abroad (chiefly in the Third World). She calls for abolishing homework while acknowledging that economic conditions will probably keep it alive until technology finally renders homeworkers completely unable to compete.
The possibility of unionizing homeworkers, or more informally linking them together through self-help networks, is only marginally mentioned and never seriously discussed, although this has been effective in combatting abuses in some areas of New England. Also, Johnson fails to illuminate the critical distinctions between industrial homeworkers and other independent craftspeople in the garment industry: independent seamstresses doing custom-tailoring for individual clients, knitting hobbyists who sell their work through specialty shops, artisans in leather and wool, etcetera. The most significant distinction is that the latter group have direct access to their customers, thus obtaining a much greater share of the return on their labor. The industrial homeworker is poorly paid in large part because her work reaches customers through several middlemen. Her work may fetch as much money, but the money is spread more thinly. Assuming some direct access to markets might, therefore, be a viable means of improving the homeworker’s lot, and might be something the garment workers’ unions could help establish, if they weren’t so busy trying to safeguard their own almost-as-exploitative factory jobs by stamping out the home competition.
All in all, however, The Seam Allowance is an excellent job of updating one of the first focal points of the labor movement — the cause over which the independent weavers smashed Ludd’s Mill, foreseeing piecework as their future if the factory system ever replaced craftsmanship.