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The Chinese American garment industry.

Benjamin Fee, also known as H. T. Chang, was the China-born son of a San Francisco interpreter. He immigrated to California in the early 1920s. During the 1930s he became a labor organizer on the West Coast. This piece was published in the April 10 and 11, 1935 issues of Chung Sai Yat Po. At the time Fee was working as union organizer for the ILGWU trying to organize Chinatown garment factories. He failed, but his effort was a prelude to Jennie Matyas' successful attempt two years later Fee moved to New York in the late 1930s. After World War II he became a business agent for an ILGWU local having many Chinese members.--HML


The garment industry is the primary industry for the Chinese in San Francisco. According to city government statistics, there are 54 garment shops in Chinatown. During the peak season in spring, the number of garment workers hired is as high as 1,200. Assuming that each worker is responsible for the support of three dependents, then roughly 5,000 Chinatown residents, or close to half of Chinatown's population (11,000), rely directly or indirectly on the industry. Yet this important industry is beginning to decline, going the same way as the laundry business and agriculture. It is a problem that anyone who is concerned with the future welfare of the Chinese community cannot afford to ignore. It is for the purpose of alerting all Chinese, and especially the garment workers, that I am writing this article.

It is of course no accident that the garment factory is facing a crisis. Similar to other industries, it is part of the fabric that makes up the American economic system. The financial panic of recent years and the current permanent economic slump have dealt a severe blow to all industries. Naturally, the Chinese garment industry is also affected.

However, it would be inaccurate to point to the current financial depression as the only reason for the crisis in the garment industry, for there are certain weaknesses inherent in the industry itself, which help to intensify and magnify what might otherwise be an ordinary problem. These are as follows:


Except for three or four factories, garment factories in Chinatown do contract work. The owners of these factories (or contractors) do not usually have much capital. An owner usually puts up a thousand dollars to lease some vacant storefront, repair it minimally, equip it with ten to twenty sewing machines, and then open for business. Some contractors would even buy the machines on installments. Cash flow is frequently a problem in this kind of situation. Funds for all expenses are dependent on the garment prices offered by the manufacturers or jobbers. Therefore these owners usually find themselves facing the following problems:

a. In order to obtain ready cash to meet expenses they are willing to contract garments from manufacturers or jobbers at reduced prices even though they know that they are hurting the entire industry, not to mention cutting their own profit, even to the point of taking a loss.

b. They strive to lower the wage portion of the garment price and thus maximize their fee portion as much as possible.

c. They lack the financial resources to update their equipment to improve production, and totally ignore provision of services and facilities at the factory necessary for employee health and childcare.


The workload throughout the year for such contract work factories is never steady or stable. One reason is that the market demand for garments is seasonal. Another reason is that jobbers and manufacturers have their own factories and they make full use of their own production capacity if at all possible. Consequently, they only offer what garments they cannot handle during the peak season in spring to Chinatown contractors. It is clear that occasions like these are not too many, nor are they guaranteed. Consequently factory owners have to plan to protect themselves:

a. Besides taking out from the garment price a considerable amount to meet the existing contractor's fee, they also have to set aside a portion to take care of expenses during the off season.

b. When the peak season arrives, they flock to both American and Chinese jobbers to receive consignments at cut-rate prices. Then they push the workers day and night to speed up production so that they can get a larger contractor's fee.

c. They seldom keep a permanent work force. When work is plentiful they compete with each other in hiring workers. When work is slack they lay off workers, discarding them like worn shoes.



Another weakness is that though the Chinese contractors are good at making a profit, very few possess knowledge of management practices. As a result, their sewing factories are poorly managed. The workers waste much time, and production levels are extremely inadequate.

Because of the weaknesses mentioned above, the Chinatown garment industry is now facing with the following problems:

a. Shortage of skilled workers

Nearly every Chinatown garment factory is experiencing the shortage of skilled workers. According to recent statistics, most of the Chinatown garment workers, male and female, are between the ages of 35 and 40. These workers, either because of their way of life or physical conditions, do not appear to be able to improve their skills. As for the younger and energetic children of those workers, they would just take a look at the poor working conditions of the industry and turn away. As for the more skilled workers, they have almost been all absorbed by factories offering higher wages and more permanent work (e.g., National Dollar Stores).

b. Fierce competition among themselves leading to behind-the-scene manipulations

Because Chinese factory owners are trying to underbid each other in getting consignments, non-Chinese jobbers feel they can deliberately keep garment prices low. As a result, new factories in general find it difficult to stay in business, and they incur losses and close down.

c. Sharp conflicts with economic recovery policies

Some factory owners feel that the only solution to their various problems is to cut wages. As a result, the standard of living of Chinatown garment factory workers keeps declining, falling below the minimum wage standard set by the Economic Recovery Act. There had been factory owners who violated the law and were discovered and fined by the authorities. In such cases, one can only say that they brought this upon themselves.

d. Growing discontent among garment workers

Under these adverse conditions, part of the workers who have a tendency to lag behind begin to fall into the trap of passive resistance, not caring, slowing down, etc. But the majority of the workers have become aware of the importance of uniting together and organizing so as to better themselves and to improve their own lives. And especially, the adverse conditions of the Chinatown garment industry have attracted the attention of non-Chinese and the labor sector. Some unenlightened non-Chinese have given serious warning to foreigners, such as saying "Whoever insists that their standard of living be lower than we Americans do not deserve to live in the U.S.," and "Any industry that cannot offer an adequate wage to its workers has lost its meaning and its right to exist."

It is a pity that though Chinatown garment factory owners and workers are aware of the above crisis, they always place the blame on contradictions between white and yellow races. This attitude is either extreme stupidity or is an attempt to confuse the issue. It does not help the situation. Based on my experience the past year during which I had made contacts with many people, I feel that there are only two correct solutions:

a. Contractors should unite together and punish owners who lower their bids, so as to put an end to the illegal competition and behind-the-scene manipulations. The workload and work hours should be shared evenly and Chinatown's production equipment should be consolidated and reorganized to adapt to changing conditions. Production and factory discipline should be improved. At the same time the contractors should present a united front to non-Chinese jobbers and try to get garment prices increased. In this way, the issue of improving the life of workers will be easy to resolve.

b. If all Chinese garment workers wish to improve their lives and be fit for survival, they should voluntarily seek to upgrade their skills and techniques. For example: they can learn how to be more adept in their manual skills and how to increase their work efficiency. Maybe they can organize after-work workshops to encourage exchange of information and ideas, or organize social functions to bring people into contact with each other and broaden their knowledge. If workers will stand together, communicate and cooperate with each other, then difficult problems will be gradually solved. Factory owners and workers have a need to try to understand and work with each other. Overseas Chinese, be they factory owners or workers, are all living under the economic repression from without; therefore we should make plans before the rains arrive, and work together to come up with a plan that enables us to achieve a long-term co-existence with each other.

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Article Details
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Author:Hentang, Zhang "Fee Benjamin"
Publication:Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Article Type:Industry overview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Previous Article:History of Meizhou Gongyi Tongmeng Zonghui (Unionist Guild of America).
Next Article:Jennie Matyas and the national dollar stores factory strike in San Francisco Chinatown.

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