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Research Domain: Group Five - Informal Learning in Different Workplaces

Title of Project: Labour Adjustment and Job Training Programs: Implications for Immigrant Women Workers

Start Date: April 1, 1997
Academic Investigator: Dr. Roxana Ng (OISE/UT)
Student Researcher: Renita Wong (OISE/UT)

In the late 1970s and the 1980s, especially since the forging of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the garment industry, once the mainstay of Toronto's manufacturing sector, has witnessed steady decline. This decline was partly the result of globalization, facilitated by trade agreements such as NAFTA, whereby manufacturers could move their production sites to places with cheaper labour costs, and partly the shifting locus of control from the manufacturers to large retail chains such as The Bay (which owns Zellers and K-Mart among its conglomerates). One of the responses of manufacturers to their slipping control was to downsize their production plants (thereby displacing large number of workers) to cut production costs, and contracting out the sewing of garments to sewers who now work from their own home. According to the Ontario Labour Code, home workers are self-employed, and are thus unable to bargain collectively. In this way, UNITE!, the garment workers' union, found its membership dwindling, while workers faced deteriorating working conditions including isolation. In response to this plight, UNITE! established the Home Workers' Association (HWA), in 1992, to organize garment workers, many of them Chinese immigrant women, outside of the collective bargaining process. Part of the organizing involves accessing labour adjustment funding to develop training programs that meet the special needs of home workers.

This project examines the nature and availability of job training programs for immigrant women who are garment workers. It documents the programs developed by the HWA as a site of informal learning, where immigrant women learning language and job skills through formal instructions (as in ESL classes) and through 'mutual aid' (where skilled workers teach less skilled ones). This project links up with another project ('New Forms of Social Learning for Those Outside the Mainstream Labour Market' led by Eric Shragge), which compares different forms of community and labour initiatives and training. Whereas the Shragge project compares the provincial and municipal contexts in which marginalized groups' learning is situated, this project emphasizes the detailed nature of HWA programs. The key questions asked are:

  1. How is the labour market of homeworkers organized?

  2. How does UNITE!, via the HWA, respond to the needs of displaced workers?

  3. How do immigrant women who are home workers strategize around their employment situation through personal (informal networks) and organizational (via the HWA) means?

     

To answer these questions, this study focusses on the programs provided by the HWA for its members. By means of in-depth interviews and participant observation, the objective is to explore how home workers make use of language and training programs to facilitate their re-entry into the labour market, and the networks they develop by participating in these programs for personal and employment-related goals.

The primary research strategy is institutional ethnography (IE) a method of inquiry developed by eminent sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1987). IE seeks to interrogate people's experiences, policies and programs in the institutional contexts within which they arise and are given shape and meaning. This study extends IE to include how individuals innovate around labour market and policy constraints.

The information gathered includes:

  1. Examination and analysis of relevant documents (newspaper clippings, newsletters of UNITE! and the HWA);

     

  2. In-depth interviews with key informants (government and union officials and home workers);

  3. Participant observation of programs organized by the HWA.

 

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