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Friday, February 23, 2024

Exploited immigrant women garment workers of Montreal carved better future for their children

Bangladesh could trim its cotton imports by a substantial 15 percent through efficient recycling of garment waste, a move that has the potential to save several hundred million dollars annually, say industry experts.

The advantages of such recycling extend beyond mere cost-cutting. If provided with the requisite policy support for local value addition, exports from garments made from recycled textile waste can earn an additional annual revenue of $4 billion to $5 billion, according to exporters in the industry

Bangladesh generates 4-5 million tons of textile waste, known as jhut, yearly. These include cutting remnants, scraps, and fluffs. Recycling Jhut can reduce cotton imports by 15 percent and earn exporters $4-5 billion annually. Currently, only 5 percent of Jhut is recycled, out of which 30-35 percent is used in clothing for the domestic market. Most of it ends in landfilling. An export body plans to set up old or rejected clothes collection centers.

The challenges faced in this regard are financing and taxation, high investment requirements, and a 7 percent VAT on waste collection. Still, 40 factories recycle waste to produce yarn, and they are slapped with 15 percent VAT on recycled yarn sales.

According to the Bangladesh Textile Mills Association (BTMA), the country imported over 18 lakh tonnes of cotton worth over Tk47869 crore in 2022. The amount of imports in the first 11 months of the current year is 12.27 lakh tonnes worth Tk32,408 crore. If garment waste were recycled, reducing cotton imports, Bangladesh would have realized a staggering savings of Tk7,180 crore (almost $700 million) in 2022 alone and Tk4,861 crore in the first 11 months of this year.

Immigrant women from Italy toiled and were exploited by the garment manufacturers in Montreal during the second half of the 20th century. Now, their younger and empowered generation is paying tribute to their hard work.

Ida del Pinto Mosesso already had five years of experience as a seamstress in Italy when she started working at Smart Brassieres Inc. on Montreal’s Chabanel Street at age 18 in 1967. The hands that operated Ida del Pinto Mosesso’s bra manufacturing machine are elegant in their old age but riddled with arthritis after four decades of work in Montreal’s garment district.

One day, in the late ’90s, she showed up at Smart Brassieres Inc. for her shift only to find the doors locked. Just like that, the factory, like hundreds before it on the once booming Chabanel Street, was no more. It defaulted in 1999, according to Quebec’s business registry. Mosesso, who had spent 35 years doing piecework for the company, was never compensated for her last three weeks and lost her vacation pay.

“In our Italian community, they give homage to all these business people, all these politicians [but] these women that are their mothers and their grandmothers, the women that raised them and made them become the successful people that they are today, they were never really recognized,” Morsella said.

“Factories have closed, they’ve become lost, they’ve been transformed into something else, and it’s like forgetting history,” she said.

For most of the 20th century, the clothing industry was Montreal’s largest source of manufacturing jobs, says Melanie Leavitt, a Mile End Memories Historical Society director. She offers walking tours along St-Laurent Boulevard, tracing the history of the garment industry and the women who organized the workers within it.

“Montreal still is [Canada’s] capital of the clothing industry, but it is just a fraction of what it once was,” said Leavitt.

Another thing that’s remained consistent is the workforce primarily being immigrant women, she added. At first, it was Eastern European and Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, then Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese after the Second World War, and Latin Americans and groups from different parts of Asia from the end of the century until now.

As one group built a financial foundation for their children, they exited the industry and left space for newer immigrants who had yet to learn French and English.

Sandra Lorusso found work at the Underwear Mills factory within a couple of months of moving to Montreal from Italy in May 1967 after being referred by her sister-in-law. She’s friends with Mosesso — though that happened later in life playing bocce — and also participated in the Women of Steel project.

Lorusso talks about her work at the factory with pride. She retired four years ago at age 69, saying that was mainly to keep her retired husband company at home.

At 69, Sandra Lorusso essentially had to force herself to retire. She says she looks back at her time at the Underwear Mills factory with fondness. Before her retirement, she could still add a top stitch up to 1,000 pairs of men’s underwear a day.

When you’re there [in the factory], you don’t think about it. But slowly, when it comes into your mind, you think, ‘My God, 42 years of my life — I spent almost all of it there than with my family,'” she said.

“We’re immigrants, but we did a lot for Canada. And in the end, we weren’t appreciated for what we gave.” Morsella saw that first-hand working as a cutter’s assistant when she was 16. The experience was cut short when she was mistakenly handed her male colleague’s pay stub and found out he was getting paid more than her for the same job.

It was like, you know, awoke me, said Morsella, who quit and later formed the CFSE’s first committee along with six others to help Italian immigrants navigate living and working in Quebec.  Now a practicing lawyer, she credits her mother’s 30 years in the garment industry for the opportunity to do something else with her life.

The garment industry sharply declined when Josefina Hernandez started working at Montreal’s Peerless Clothing factory in 1984. She had just moved to Montreal from the Dominican Republic and was soon joined by her four children.

You could see people’s desperation because it wasn’t easy having an income for who knows how many years, and suddenly, the company leaves to Mexico, China, and who knows where else,” said Hernandez. “It was sad.”

With the globalization of trade, hundreds of companies struggled to stay afloat, competing with cheaper imports while mitigating the recession of the early ’80s, explained Leavitt. Like Mosesso, Hernandez’s body bears scars from her time at the factory — in the shape of a “little worm” along her wrist just under her thumb.

It’s the aftermath of surgery to treat calcific tendinitis by sewing buttons on hundreds of suit sleeve pairs daily, five days a week. That’s what Quebec’s Commission des lésions professionnelles found after Hernandez filed a workplace injury complaint in 1998. “The more production you do, the better your check,” she said.

As a single mother of four, Hernandez often ate lunch at her desk to maximize her pay since she was paid around $3.50 to $4 hourly. Hernandez changed jobs from sewing buttons to steam pressing shoulder pads when her wrist became too uncomfortable but then developed asthma.

Peerless Clothing was asked to compensate Hernandez for the workplace injury, but she says she doesn’t hold any hard feelings toward the company. She came to Montreal with four kids who all became professionals and is now the matriarch in a family of 42 people.

“I’m very grateful [to the company], but I’m also not dumb,” she said. “Because I’m grateful to the company doesn’t mean I’ll let myself get stepped all over.”

Leavitt said the garment industry saw an acceleration in its decline after 2005. Today, most of Canada’s clothing manufacturing jobs are still in Montreal, but they barely add up to 16,000, according to a 2022 report by the non-profit Mmode.

The industry is no longer as visible as it used to be when several Montreal streets were lined with factories and flooded with workers. But that doesn’t mean its workers must also retreat into history.

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