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Working Conditions

Workers in these occupations work in factories and large workshops. Hours of work are usually a standard 35 to 40 hour work week. Some after-hours or weekend work may be required, or may be chosen by workers being paid on a piece-work basis. Shops are often noisy and dusty, and machine operators may spend long periods of time sitting in one position.

Working conditions for many workers in this occupational group are not good. They may work long hours in unpleasant workplaces for very low wages. However, competition for this work can be tight, since many immigrant women who haven’t yet learned English see this as one of their few employment options. Despite the possibility of poor working conditions, these jobs do offer an income for new immigrants who may need time to learn English and become oriented to a new society before seeking other work. Good shops do exist, and workers who secure these jobs have brighter prospects. Usually the presence of a union signals a shop with higher employment standards. Some jobs are available with smaller “”niche market”" companies, and these may also provide better conditions.

Workers in this occupational group have earnings well below the B.C. workforce average according to 1995 salary figures. All workers, including those who worked part time or part year, earned an estimated average of $14,100, compared to the all-occupation average of $27,900. Workers employed full time for the full year averaged $18,600, less than half the provincial average of $39,400.

Hourly rates for union workers in the Lower Mainland ranged from $7 to $12 in 1995. Industry sources confirm that minimum wage is the usual entry-level pay rate and that the $12 an hour rate is the high end for well-qualified, skilled workers. Many workers work at a piece-work rate, which can result in higher pay for those who can work very quickly, but piece-work often pays less than hourly rates. Within this group, cutters generally earn more than sewers, and some inspectors can earn higher wages, depending on their employer and their responsibilities.

In 1998 there were 4,470 people in this group in B.C., up from 3,860 in 1990. Self-employment among this group is less common than average. Compared to 15% of the workforce overall, 11% in this group report being self-employed. There are fewer than average part-time workers in these occupations as well, with only about 19% of this group working part time (compared to a workforce average of 26%). These workers are slightly more likely to work full time, part year than full time, full year. The unemployment rate among garment workers is higher than the provincial average.

The clothing industry works on four fashion seasons, and layoffs commonly occur in the change from one season to the next. For example, after the production of spring clothing, it may take weeks to receive orders for summer clothing and to get in new fabrics.

About two-thirds of these workers are employed in manufacturing industries (clothing, textiles and leather). The rest are employed in retail and wholesale trade, and personal services (such as dry cleaning and repair services).

Most workers in this occupational group in B.C. work in the Lower Mainland, where the manufacturing companies are located. A full 84% work in the Lower Mainland region. Of the remainder, 5% are employed on Vancouver Island, 9% are in the Okanagan/Kootenay region, and only 2% live in Northern B.C.

The large majority (88%) of these workers are women. Members of visible minority groups make up 74% of these workers. Because the work doesn’t require workers to have strong English language skills, these jobs are often filled by workers new to Canada who are still learning English. The average age of workers in this group (41) is three years older than the B.C. all-occupation averages.

Employment Prospects

This is a medium-sized occupational group, made up of about 4,470 workers in B.C. in 1998. The Canadian Occupational Projection System (COPS) projects employment to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. This projection means that 1,050 positions will become available from 1998 to 2008. About two-thirds of these openings will be to replace workers who retire, with the remainder coming from new jobs. Due to low pay and strenuous work, a high rate of worker turnover will create many additional openings.

There are a number of factors responsible for the low employment growth of this occupational group. Employment in the clothing and textile manufacturing industries, which together employ roughly 62% of these workers, is projected to decline. This decline is expected to fall disproportionately on workers in this occupational group. This is because most workers in this group work in mass production factories, and these industries will continue to update equipment and introduce other new labour-saving technologies. For example, computer-integrated machinery and manufacturing processes will let operators monitor a number of machines at once. Cutters in particular have been affected by increased automation, as new computerized machines do some of the work previously done by these workers. This increased productivity of cutters, however, may increase the employment demand for those sewing the pieces together. Because the industry is becoming highly automated, those with many technical skills will have better opportunities.

Globalization is also expected to continue to have a negative impact on employment for this occupational group by further opening B.C. markets to foreign producers. Inexpensive foreign clothing imports compete with clothing from the local industry, which has higher operating costs. Some of these effects have been reduced recently due to higher levels of Asian investment in the clothing industry in the Vancouver area. Although most of the clothing produced in B.C. is for local markets, B.C firms do produce some specialty garments that are also exported to the rest of Canada and the world.

Employment in this occupational group is sensitive to general economic conditions. If people in general face tighter budgets, they buy less clothing.

Employment demand will be strongest for highly skilled workers who can handle difficult fabrics and detailed designs. Although large-scale manufacturing may be losing ground, there is growth in niche-market companies that place higher value on quality and design. There are also opportunities for work in companies that can provide custom-made products in a short time. Workers who show attention to detail and quality standards will succeed with employers who produce high-quality goods. These emerging companies will probably employ fewer workers because of their lower production levels. However, because the skill requirements are higher for these workers, the jobs will probably provide better working conditions and wages than the standard in this occupational group.

These workers are usually hired through newspaper advertisements. In the Lower Mainland, these job ads are often placed in local foreign-language newspapers.

Inspectors are generally required to have some experience making the products they inspect. Machine operators and cutters may become inspectors with experience, though work as an inspector doesn’t automatically mean an increase in wages. These workers may also progress to supervisory positions with experience, though advancement opportunities are limited. Experienced workers may also be able to transfer their skills to related work as tailors and seamstresses or upholsterers. These related jobs tend to pay more than the production jobs in this occupational group.