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It's All History by Jon Malek

The “Special Manitoba Garment Worker Scheme” of 1968

by Jon Malek

On September 8, 2018, Winnipeg celebrated the 50th anniversary of Filipino garment workers in Canada, the first batch having arrived on October 1, 1968. In that same year, under a joint industry and government undertaking, hundreds of Filipinos were granted immigration visas to Canada to work in Winnipeg’s burgeoning garment industry. Beginning in the late 1960s, the garment industry in Winnipeg was rapidly expanding and was experiencing chronic labour shortages. While Montréal and Toronto had 39,864 and 15,047 people respectively employed in the garment industry in 1966, Winnipeg had 5,200; however, Winnipeg’s labour shortage was nearly equal to Toronto.

The labour demands meant that sewing machines were sitting empty, patterns were not cut, and output was not close to matching demand. Industry leaders estimated in July 1968 that the job demand for Winnipeg’s garment factories was in the hundreds, and that the demand would only continue to grow. Winnipeg-based companies like Peerless Garments and Silpit Industries reported to the Canadian government that domestic and international orders were in danger of being unfilled, which would lead to cancelled future contracts. Peerless claimed to be losing $250,000 a year in lost export orders; Silpit claimed to be losing about one-million dollars in exports to the U.S., and two-million dollars lost to domestic sales, as orders could not be filled.

The garment industry in Manitoba historically had relied upon immigrant labour to operate, largely due to a lack of local interest due to low wages and poor working conditions. Over the five years following the first movement of garment workers in 1968, thousands of Filipinos immigrated to Winnipeg and surrounding communities to staff the garment industry. These movements were foundational in the development of the Winnipeg Filipino community, which was still about a decade old. Previous to the garment workers, the community had a high concentration of medical professionals who, similar to the garment workers, were sponsored by the government to work in Winnipeg hospitals that were facing an acute labour shortage.

This group of garment workers grew rapidly, increasing the population of Winnipeg’s Filipinos and changing the class structure of the community. For a few years, leaders in the community had difficulty engaging this community. During the 1980 election for the Philippine Association of Manitoba executive board, the leadership was criticized for not including the “sleeping giant” - Winnipeg’s garment workers - in its organization.

The move of Filipinos in 1968 was also part of a more general shift in Canada’s source of immigrants. Following the Second World War, Canada heavily recruited refugees and other displaced persons as an affordable labour source for Canada’s growing post-war economy, including the garment industry. However, by the late 1960s, such recruitment programs were becoming increasingly difficult. In 1967, 293 female garment workers were recruited in Italy; a year after their immigration, though, more than half had left the industry due to poor working conditions and low pay. In 1968, Canadian officials in Italy reported a poor level of interest in working in the garment industry, sparking industry leaders in Winnipeg to look elsewhere for labour. With the liberalizing of immigration rules in 1967 – especially the removal of overtly racist restrictions on Asian immigration – industry leaders looked to Japan and South Korea for workers, however the prospects for recruiting from these countries were also poor.

In April 1966, an unnamed Filipino doctor who had immigrated to Winnipeg approached the Young Ideas garment company to suggest the recruitment of garment workers from the Philippines. As traditional labour sources by 1967 were no longer yielding the labour sources needed, government and industry leaders were willing to explore the Philippines as a potential source. The first Philippine garment recruitment program, the “Special Manitoba Garment Worker Scheme,” had the support of Manitoba government officials and the garment industry, with the federal government having significant hesitancy in the program.

On July 22, 1968, the president of Silpit Industries, D. S. Kaufman, outlined to the federal government the labour needs of the garment industry in Manitoba and proposed remedies to the shortage. Mr. Kaufman recommended that representatives of the Manitoba government and the garment industry travel to Manila to interview, screen, and recruit potential workers. With offers of employment, they would then be forwarded to the Canadian government who would vet their applications and grant immigration visas. The proposed timeline was tight, with Kaufman suggesting the tour take place from August 1-23, beginning just a week after the letter was written. The industry was careful to take care of as much as possible to avoid utilizing the resources of the Canadian consulate in Manila, which was already over-worked. This included testing potential workers on sewing machines that had been rented in Manila, and conducting the necessary medical testing for applicants. Workers who were granted entry into Canada would be forwarded a relocation loan of $120, which was to be written off over a twenty-four month period, granted that the worker remained with the company. The whole plan seemed ambitious, and even a bit audacious, but nevertheless the first group of Filipino garment workers arrived in Winnipeg on October 1, 1968, abroad CPA flight 002.

While the federal government eventually approved the recruitment scheme, they did so uneasily. They were, on the one hand, reluctant to give too much assistance to an industry that they felt was too reliant upon immigrant labour to fill labour shortages, rather than cultivating local talent. Government officials charged that immigrant labour prevented the industry from improving its working conditions and wages, the main deterrent to local labour sources. On the other hand, though, there remained apprehension at the sharp influx of Filipino immigrants.

While immigration policies had been reformed and racism reportedly removed from the process, there remained significant worry among government officials at the effects of a large non-white population would have in Winnipeg. In particular, officials expressed fear of “single girls” who would most likely sponsor their family members, who, it was feared, would be unskilled. The fear, which revealed lingering racist views in Canadian immigration, was expressed in a report by the Canadian Consulate-General in Manila who reminded officials that “most Filipino families are very large. A family of twelve is not unusual here [in the Philippines].”

The recruitment scheme was deemed successful by government and industry leaders, although it was not without its own peculiarities. The representative of the garment industry in the program, Meyer Klapman, arrived in Manila on Monday, August 26 and immediately reduced the number of workers that they claimed were so desperately needed. In spite of the frustration this created in the federal government, the interviewing and testing went off smoothly until the following Friday, August 30, when Klapman abruptly abandoned the interviews at 10:00 a.m., leaving about 40 to 50 applicants waiting in the room. No explanation for his sudden departure was ever received, and government officials reported that Klapman had been spotted sightseeing in Tokyo over the weekend.

In spite of the success of the program in recruiting needed Filipino garment workers, the federal government expressed many concerns. In addition to Meyer Klapman’s bizarre behaviour, the Consulate-General expressed concern over the high costs for Filipinos to secure government documentation in their applications. Not only were these individuals susceptible to shady moneylenders, but those who had been abandoned by Klapman on August 30 were now out of all the money they had spent. It was feared that, in some cases, visas would not be finalized, as applicants were unable to secure all required documentation. In addition to costs estimated around ₱300, items for life in Winnipeg, such as winter clothing, were necessary, meaning that many immigrants would arrive in Canada already indebted. Those who could not afford to finalize their immigration might find themselves in tight positions, as many were losing their jobs in Manila when it was discovered they had applied for immigration.

In spite of these concerns, however, the movement of garment workers continued in earnest over the next few years. The industry in Winnipeg was particularly impressed with the work of Filipinos so that when news was received that Bergaus N. V., a major garment company in the Netherlands, was closing its plant in Ulft, displacing hundreds of Filipino workers, government and industry jumped at the opportunity to recruit them in the early 1970s. The labour demands of the industry were never resolved by Filipino immigration; like their Italian counterparts in 1967, many Filipinos left the industry after a year or two for other industries. The demands on the industry did not resolve until more and more labour was sourced outside of Canada. Although many factories remained open in Winnipeg, and Filipinos continued to work in these plants, the fervour of the late 1960s and 1970s dissipated.

The movement of garment workers into Winnipeg marked an important phase in the Filipino community as these workers changed the class dynamic. Many of these workers did sponsor their families – as the federal government initially feared – and most would agree now that this was for the better of Winnipeg and for Canada. Those garment workers who came during this time were laying the foundations for future movements of Filipinos as family sponsorship reunited families in Winnipeg.

Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and lectures in History at the University of Manitoba.

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