Labour Force

Accommodating an Increasingly Diverse Workforce

by Catherine C. Cole

Photo of group of workers As each immigrant group came to Edmonton, newcomers were advised by family, community members, government and, later, immigrant services agencies, to apply for work at GWG. There was always a lot of turnover at the plant for people who could not adjust to the work or the working environment; but there were also a number of long-term employees who stayed for their entire working lives. The workforce became increasingly diverse as newcomers joined existing groups of employees. The company did little to accommodate newcomers until after the arrival of displaced persons from Europe after World War II and the beginning of Asian immigration in the 1960s.

The Language Barrier

Although relations between peoples were generally good, workers initially tended to stick to their own cultural groups because of the language barrier and their focus on work. Giuseppina Tagliente, an Italian immigrant who worked at the plant from 1980 to 2004, commented that, "Because they were speaking the same language, and so most of the time they would stay together, and they can talk about you know, they're more comfortable. Yeah, everybody like the East Indian they stay with East Indian, Italian with Italian, Chinese with Chinese, Portuguese with Portuguese, and so on."

By the 1980s the workforce was primarily Asian. Union meetings were held in English and Chinese, and the company celebrated Chinese New Year by giving all employees a red envelope with one dollar inside. When Canadian-born Janet Cardinal, who had worked at the plant from 1962 to 1966, returned in 1988, she said there were "only eight Canadian girls working there." Cardinal said they used to use sign language to communicate with the others, and that when she was shop steward she had to ask the women to slow down when they would come to her when they were upset. "We always laughed about it ... nobody got upset that you couldn't understand them, we'd just work at it until we understood each other."

Merlin Beharry, an Indo-Caribbean woman who worked at the plant from 1968 to 1999, said that there was some conflict when non-European women started to become supervisors, but that, "Whatever negative vibes that came our way, did not come from the workers. It came from some of the supervisors, the European supervisors. We are treading on sacred territory now. There was Kulminder, there was another girl from India who's no longer here in Edmonton, and myself. They were there years before us. This was their domain. I don't know if I'm using the right word, but that's what it amounted to."

English in the Workplace Programs

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Virginia Mah describes the use of English in the plant (1:30)

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Photo of people in restaurant In 1965, GWG initiated the first industrially sponsored English as a Second Language Program (ESL) as part of a vocational training program, jointly financed by the federal and provincial governments and the company. Recent immigrants received 36 hours of English instruction. This program ended after a few years.

Then, in 1986, Levi Strauss contracted Virginia Sauve to introduce a new English in the Workplace program in order to improve communication and efficiency in the plant. She and employee Bev Walker assessed the English language level of more than 500 non-English speakers of the approximately 735 workers and developed the program. Initially, workers with the lowest level of English language skills were given priority. The program operated for 17 years, after work and on Saturday mornings. It provided both language and literacy classes, with ten to twelve people in each language class and eight or nine in each literacy class. Unlike the program offered in the 1960s, there was no limit to the number of hours during which workers could participate. Like the earlier program, it was initially funded by the government. After a few years, the company covered the cost but the teachers never worked directly for Levi Strauss. Because the teachers worked independently, the women were comfortable raising concerns. If there were serious problems the teachers alerted management, but usually they helped people to resolve their issues.

The company used the English in the Workplace classes to convey important information to the workers, such as changes in company policy or health and safety information. The union used the classes to explain meeting agendas and the collective agreement. The workers learned much more than English. The teachers answered questions about the community, explained notices from their children's schools, organized field trips, provided resources, and even staged a mock election to encourage workers to vote! They created strong bonds of friendship through the classes.

Sauve remembers that, "because so many of the Chinese women took the program ... some of the other groups decided this was a Chinese program. It wasn't and they—the women—some of them would speak Chinese in the classes, which the other women hated, so you had to be really committed... we did have the occasional Polish person that would come and just deal with the Chinese. The Vietnamese women tended to learn Chinese while they were working in the plant because it just made their lives easier. So, when they came in they might only speak Vietnamese, but boy when they left, they spoke Chinese too... But the Indian women didn't come to the classes and that's unfortunate because while their verbal skills—most of them—were quite good, many of them didn't have literacy, and they missed a wonderful opportunity... and then we'd have some Filipino women, Portuguese. We had several Portuguese women; there was one class that was actually predominantly Portuguese."

The workers were initially paid to take the classes but, Sauve noted, "the women were terrified because they were being paid, that they were going to lose the program, because it was so much money that was being spent—way more than was actually spent on the program itself, was spent on paying the people to be there. So it was actually the women who asked not to be paid and indeed we lost a few students—I'd say maybe 15 to 20 percent—of the students when they weren't getting paid decided they didn't really want to come, because most of these women work more than one job, and they'll do anything to earn more money. They're supporting huge, extended families, some of them still there waiting to be sponsored."

When the workers' understanding of English improved in the mid-1990s, the company shifted from piecework to wage employment. GWG had attempted to move from piecework to hourly wages in the 1940s, but operators whose wages dropped under the system resisted the change; these reverted to piecework. When Levi Strauss shifted from using bundle tickets to computerized tracking, operators with limited English were afraid of the new system; the language classes helped them to adjust.

Improving Occupational Health and Safety in a Diverse Work Environment

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Occupational health in the plant (2:39)

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Photo of group of workers While there were few major injuries in the plant, some workers suffered from emphysema, lung problems, hearing problems or carpal tunnel syndrome. Certain former employees are now convinced that these chronic health problems were a direct result of working at the plant, by breathing in lint and dust and through exposure to chemicals used in washing denim.

Chris Tigeris, occupational health nurse at the plant from 1986 to 2004, described the Lunch and Learn program that provided health-related information to the workers. "We'd do an English one, and frequently we'd get a translator to come in and do a Chinese one. Frequently we'd get a Punjabi interpreter in to do the same presentation again in Punjabi." Some of the translators were sewing instructors, which was helpful, because they could present safety information while they were training workers.

From 1993 to 2004, Tigeris job-shared with Barb Heath who said that, "Normally in my job now, what takes two seconds would take ten minutes or longer, trying to explain. Even things like vision tests. When they first came, we did an assessment to make sure they could see. These ladies would come, sometimes having been in Canada for only two weeks. They were so nervous coming for this medical [exam], I don't know what they thought I was going to do to them. They wanted this job really badly, and I think they thought I could fail them and not give them the job. We'd try to make them feel at ease, but they were very nervous."

Instructors sometimes used pictures rather than words, to explain injuries: "[We] put up pictures of a person, and then shade in the area that might get sore if they were working on that job. So they could just see, even if they couldn't read, just by looking at the picture. If the left shoulder was shaded in the picture, then they knew they'd better have strong left shoulder muscles." They also encouraged culturally appropriate practices to avoid repetitive strain injuries. "Early in the morning, especially in the summer, out on the lawn in front of the building, you'd see ladies that were doing Tai Chi."

Working with the immigrant women was a learning experience for the language teachers and nurses. Tigeris said, "I always found it interesting how the cultures intermingled. A Chinese baby would be born, and there'd be some East Indian food brought in." Heath noted, "if someone had an injury, we'd see an East Indian lady walking in with a Chinese medicine patch on. It really surprised me when I first started, because I had worked at another company where there was immigrant workers. There wasn't that family atmosphere like there was at Levi's. It was just a different place to work."

The Work Environment

Photo of workers at a party As the workforce became increasingly diverse, integration of immigrant workers into the plant—and into the union—was an issue. Workers were not well-informed about the union and language was frequently a barrier, albeit one that could be overcome through translation and language training.

However, immigrants who came from countries where they had no rights, or freedom to negotiate, were nervous about union involvement; they were afraid to ask the company if they could have time off to attend union meetings, for example. As well, their upbringing in countries with cultural traditions that discouraged women from speaking out, and lack of time resulting from adapting to a new home, prevented immigrants from becoming involved in the union. Women raised in cultures where men and women functioned in separate spheres found the female-dominated world of the plant comforting.

Immigrant women who arrived in Edmonton at the same time, from the same country, supported one another. They understood the situation they had left behind in their homeland, and whether there were troubles or worries about relatives at home.

Many women enjoyed working at the plant, appreciating getting out of the house, earning their own money, and meeting other women living in similar circumstances. The hours were better than those at jobs washing dishes in a restaurant or operating a small store, and they did not have to work weekends. Some women, who were saving money to send home to their families or bring extended family members to Canada, worked weekdays at the plant and evenings or weekends at a second job. When the plant offered day and evening shifts, many women chose to work evenings so they could be home for their children during the day and go to work when their husbands got home from their day jobs. Others with school-aged children liked working during the day so they could be home when their children got home from school. They commented about the family environment at the plant. Those who became instructors and supervisors expressed appreciation for the opportunities for personal growth provided to them by GWG (later Levi Strauss), the English lessons, training, and opportunities for advancement.

Photo of worker opening gifts While some workers stayed for many years, many left within days or a few months after the training period, when their pay shifted from hourly wages to piecework. Some who were well-educated and had been professionals in their home countries found the work demeaning. Some did not enjoy the work—it was stressful trying to work as quickly as possible without making any mistakes—but felt they were lucky to have a job. Some were afraid of losing their jobs if they complained or, in the pre-maternity leave era, if the company found out that they were pregnant. Some were afraid to leave their machines and resented that their time in the bathroom, for example, was monitored. But few used the word 'sweatshop' when describing the working environment at GWG.

Legacy

Many immigrants came to Edmonton hoping for a better life for their children. They put their own dreams aside to provide for their families. The fact that GWG, and later Levi Strauss, existed in the city, allowed them to stay there rather than moving to another Canadian city to find work.

Famed Canadian pianist Angela Cheng's mother is but one example. She brought her children to Edmonton from Hong Kong following the deaths of her husband and mother in the early 1970s and supported her family working at GWG. Cheng had studied music with her mother and aunt in Hong Kong; the move to Edmonton gave her the opportunity to develop her career.

The children of GWG and Levi Strauss workers may be found in all walks of life in Edmonton today.

Read more about Union Activities at GWG