I am a machinist. I have worked in the clothing trade for 22 years. I was taught how to make dresses, neatly but above all quickly. I also learned to not ask for any concessions, to accept bad conditions, hard, boring jobs, no sick pay, and so on.
I was taught by women who had worked under these conditions for years. They passed on their experience and their oppression. They talked about the old days, they seemed content. I was 15 and did as I was told.
Throughout my working life, I have been underpaid – but the most stunning aspect of this is my own compliance. We women in the clothing trade support and believe in the enormous myth perpetuated by the bosses; how many times have you been told: ‘But I am good to you girls, we have your best interests at heart.’ ‘Help me get this order out girls, I know you won’t let me down.’ (!)
And if you ask for a raise, ‘But you’re like one of the family (therefore how can you ask for a raise!) and I am suffering too, you know.’
They always, always understand your problems. Understand you – yes; help you – no! They weep; we invariably believe them.
I remember, while working for a family firm in Whitechapel, I went up to the senior member of the family and asked for a raise. He was an elderly man, impeccably turned out. (He’s very smart for his age, a comment often heard on the lips of the workers, never connecting the Saville Row suits with our labour).
Standing in a large showroom with at least 800 dresses hanging neatly on the rails for despatch I nervously asked for more money. He pleaded with me to think again, trade was bad – worst season he could remember – then it was the ‘I started out with nothing’ story; ‘nothing but a cardboard suitcase and an overcoat, a nobody worked for 24 hours a day, you, you’ve got it easy!’
Finally, although by then I was beaten, won over, sorry for him, he assured me that if things picked up he would see what he could do. I accepted all that I know that it was not an isolated incident, it still happens now.
My present job is hard, boring and low-paid. We are a non-union firm and at present I cannot see that changing. Invariably, women in the clothing trade are not united, another thing we can thank the bosses for: ‘Union! What for? We are all friends here: you want to see me, you just come in (but don’t expect me to give any of my profits over to you!).’
We get two wage increases a year; this is known, laughingly, as ‘getting the whisper. The boss catches each worker individually and in low, conspiratorial tones tells you your wages have risen by 2,4,6 or 15 pence an hour. He has us all in the ‘divide and rule’ trap, no one worker knows what the other is earning. What we do know is that our wages vary tremendously, two women doing the same job do not earn the same hourly rate.
We sometimes feel unwell at work – bad lighting, freezing in winter, sweating in summer – there is a first aid box on the wall; plasters, TCP are free, but the plasters are all cut to measure 1 and 1/4 by 1/4 inches, the Anadins cost 1 and a 1/2p for two! yes, we pay for headaches – and he makes a profit on the Anadins.
We complain amongst ourselves, we do nothing. Personally I can offer no excuses for stating at the job, only reasons: I have two children at school and the boss is understanding about school holidays, sickness. In short, I and too many women like me, have no choice.
The facts as I see them are that women in the clothing trade must unite against the ludicrous conditions they work under. Forget the ‘big happy family’ line. Remember that you and I may turn out between 20 or 30 dresses per day to sell at £29 to £39 each, retail; my take home pay after a full week is £42. Think about it…when will you be able to buy a dress for £39?
by Carole Barrett
Women’s Voice 35, November 1979