Labor

The ever-so-humble and low pay at home

Linda McQuaig November 10 1980
Labor

The ever-so-humble and low pay at home

Linda McQuaig November 10 1980

The ever-so-humble and low pay at home

Labor

Linda McQuaig

Since seven o’clock in the morning, the 31-year-old woman has been sitting on her living-room couch staring intently at an empty liquor bottle. Perched on her lap is a miniature cardboard table she devised herself to hold the bottle firmly in place. She slips a thin ribbon around its neck, glues a shiny label to the ribbon, lifts it off the bottle and puts the next one in placeall with the speed and grace of an agile craftsman. The work is monotonous, but apart from the occasional interruption—like making lunch for her young son—she works at it all day long. By late afternoon she has completed 1,200 ribbons. It’s been a good day; after six hours’ work she has earned $5.40.

It was nearly two years ago that this French-speaking Montrealer, looking for work to do in her home, phoned Jonergin Company Inc., a prominent label manufacturer which employs 265 people in its two Montreal factories. Over the phone, she was told to contact a woman who dispensed homework for the company. Since then, she has worked roughly six hours a day producing the decorative bottle collars that go around the necks of a deluxe Canadian whisky made by Wiser’s, a distillery that pays Jonergin to make the labels. Her pay is based on the number

of labels she makes—$1.80 for 400—but no matter how fast she works she says she never makes more than $25 to $30 for a 30-hour week. “And I’m considered fast.” It works out to about 90 cents an hour—well below Quebec’s legal minimum of $3.65 an hour. But despite provincial laws in Quebec and Ontario requiring employers to pay homeworkers the equivalent of the minimum wage, she is afraid to complain for fear of losing her job. Jonergin Vice-President Leon Dulude says he isn’t aware how much homeworkers who make labels for his company earn, since the company pays subcontractors who pay the homeworkers. He doubts, however, that homeworkers do the job to make money. “It’s a hobby for them. That’s my approach,” he says. But the woman who makes the labels sees her work as anything but a hobby. Sitting in the drab living room of her $200-a-month apartment, she explains that although her husband works full-time as a bus driver they still need the little extra she earns to support their two children. “Especially with winter coming. And I don’t mean just for Christmas presents. I mean to buy the children coats and boots.”

For thousands of women in Canada, doing piecework in their homes is one of the few ways they can earn badly needed cash. Tied down by young chil-

dren, this group of largely immigrant— and French-Canadian—women ends up sewing, packaging, folding or in some way handling products for pay that often works out to well below the minimum wage. Nobody knows exactly how many homeworkers there are in Ontario and Quebec, the two provinces where homework appears to be concentrated. The Ontario government knows of about 2,000 in the province and Quebec officials, who readily admit they don’t have any idea of the total number, say they are aware of another couple of thousand. But Eileen Shea, the co-ordinator for Rank & File, a Montreal group representing unorganized workers, thinks the real number is somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000—and includes handicapped and old people. This pool of homebound workers has proved to be an important source of cheap labor for the estimated 350 firms using them. And while many pay the minimum wage or better, officials in Quebec at least concede there are plenty of others who don’t. “We know there’s a problem out there,” says Norman Legault, chief inspector for the committee that oversees the women’s garment industry in Quebec. “And it involves a good number of companies—big ones and small ones.”

Little is known about this modernday equivalent of the preindustrial cot-

tage industry. So discreet are some employers that even the homeworker herself may not be aware whose product she is handling. Often manufacturers— particularly larger ones—use homeworkers indirectly by contracting out to another firm, which in turn subcontracts the work out to an individual who further subcontracts it to the homeworker. At the end of the chain, after everyone has taken a cut along the way, the homeworker is left with what sometimes amounts to fantastically low pay. But with so many layers involved, companies may feel little responsibility. “I don’t have the faintest idea what they’re paid,” says Bruce Nixon, purchasing agent for Wiser’s Distillery, whose other labels are all factory-made. “Whether the labels are assembled in the factory or on the moon is inconsequential to me. I want the best quality for the most reasonable price.”

Marthe Beaupré knows well just how little money can be left over at the end of the chain. The 29-year-old Montreal woman calculates that she earned about 35 cents an hour folding little plastic bags so that they could be inserted into boxes on a factory assembly line. The bilingual former office worker, who stayed at home taking care of her new baby, says she found out about the work through a local newspaper ad that gave only a first name and an address. Beau-

pré says she and her 51-year-old mother received $6.75 after spending 4V2 days folding 6,000 plastic bags.

Beaupré’s case, while dramatic, is not unique. A Toronto woman who packaged fishing lines for a sporting supplies firm said she had to wind the line around her hand, make a double knot in it with a crocket hook and then slip three of these lines into a plastic bag. The company paid five cents for a bag it took her 15 minutes to complete. “They told me I’d get faster if I kept doing it, but the fishing line was so sharp I couldn’t stand it.” Doris Daneau, a 41year-old Montreal homemaker, figures she earned about 50 cents an hour sewing Eskimo doll outfits for an exportimport company. And a 39-year-old Spanish-speaking woman spent more than a year sewing in her Toronto home for wages that she estimated ranged from $1.40 to $2.50 an hour, well below Ontario’s $3 minimum. She says she spent five to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, making dolls’ clothes for the Goodtime Toy Company. “I liked the work, but it was just too much work for so little money.” The woman in charge of Goodtime’s home-sewing operations, Aurora Lamabrid, says none of the firm’s homeworkers ever complained about what they were paid.

Homeworkers are usually too afraid of losing what little income they have to complain—or to identify themselves publicly. Several handicapped homeworkers in Montreal so feared jeopardizing their jobs that they even refused to be interviewed anonymously. With workers afraid to come forward, much of the most lowly paid homework goes uninvestigated, since government officials are reluctant to intervene unless a complaint is filed. Ontario insists that all companies giving out homework obtain a permit so that the province can scrutinize the firms’ rates. But there are no spot-checks once the permit is granted. One Chilean woman in Toronto reports that the company she worked for increased the complexity of its work after she had been sewing for it for several months, thereby reducing her wages to little more than $1 an hour. In Quebec, where a new minimum-wage law specifically protects homeworkers, officials admit they haven’t been able to do much to ensure that all homeworkers get the minimum. Laurence Paré, a spokesman for the province’s Minimum Wage Commission, says that it is difficult to prove a homeworker has been underpaid since she keeps track of her own time. The commission considered taking one case to court but decided there wasn’t enough evidence, he says. “I realize that’s not very satisfying. But this law is just in its infancy.”

While the women who work in their homes remain largely hidden from public view, they perform a key function for

employers. Dulude points out that Jonergin has been using homeworkers for the 26 years he has been with the company—although they represent less than one per cent of its manufacturing—and he says his competitors use them, too. Ruby Karpman, president of Poly Plax, a Montreal plastics company, says his firm uses homeworkers to pull cord through plastic shoe bags because the operation can be done more cheaply that way. While he’s not sure exactly what his homeworkers earn, he says it would be unfair to insist that they make the minimum wage since they have the

advantage of working in their homes.

These bargain-basement rates have caused concern in some unions. William Villano, Ontario manager of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union, has been trying unsuccessfully for years to push through a regulation that would force companies to pay homeworkers the same rates they pay factory workers. Winnie Ng, a former organizer for the Garment Workers who now works at Toronto’s Immigrant Women Centre, points out that homeworkers can have the effect of strengthening an employer’s hand in union negotiations. “The workers at the factory know that if there’s a strike the company can just send the work out.”

For many women, homework involves all the responsibility of a full-time job—having to complete the work by a certain time—without the advantages of secure employment. And although homeworkers are entitled to vacation pay, some simply never collect. Of course, at the rate many of them are paid, vacation pay—even when it is given—hardly provides much of a holiday. One 41-year-old Chinese widow, who lives with her five children in Toronto’s Chinatown, spent roughly 40 hours a week sewing in her home for 3‘/2 months before she had to quit for health reasons. She sighs: “My vacation pay was less than $10.”