This interesting account of the Chinese garment industry in San Francisco estimated that 40 to 50 percent of Chinatown's population in the mid-1930s was dependent on garment work. The similarities between garment contract work in San Francisco in the 1930s and sweatshop conditions in New York City a generation earlier are striking. Pesotta's observations and those recorded by Heng Tang Zhang are remarkably consistent. Both noted the need for some sort of industry code to restrain the worst competitive features of the garment trades.
This account appeared in Chung Sai Yat Po, the leading Chinese-language newspaper in San Francisco, with a circulation in the early part of the century (probably its peak) of around 4,000. It was published between 1900 and 1951. While it provided Chinese immigrants with news of their homeland, it also reflected the strong influence of American institutions and encouraged its readers to assimilate into American society.
Garment work is the primary industry of the Chinese in this town. According to a recent San Francisco government study, there are a total of 54 Chinese garment factories. In the busy spring season, as many as 1,200 workers are employed. Assuming that every worker supports 3 dependents, directly or indirectly no less than 5,000 Chinatown residents are supported. And this number is almost half of Chinatown's entire Chinese population (actual population: 11,000). Such an important industry has now been declining along with laundry, agriculture, etc. Of course, anyone caring for the future welfare of the Chinese should not overlook this matter. To awaken the entire Chinese community, especially all the garment factory workers, to further discuss this serious issue is the purpose of the author writing this article.
The current crisis of Chinese garment factories is not fortuitous. Like every other industry in the U.S. they are all a part of the textile sector of the economic system. Years of economic depression and the almost permanent current economic decline are devastating blows to all industries. Certainly, Chinese garment factories are not an exception.
However, it is incorrect to view the poor economy as the sole reason for the crisis of the Chinese garment industry, because the Chinese garment industry itself has some unique weaknesses. And these weaknesses can often exemplify and worsen the general crisis in industry.
These weaknesses are as follows:
1) Lack of Capital Resources
Except for three Chinatown garment factories, the rest all fall into the contract work category. These factory owners or contractors generally do not have an abundant amount of capital. Investing a thousand dollars and few more hundred to rent a space, roughly prepared with ten to twenty machines, they are in business. Some contractors even bought machines with a loan, and are required to make mortgage payments. With this limited amount of capital they are dependent on the price the jobbers set on the work. Thus, this type of owner is not uncommonly found in the following situations:
a. In order to generate cash to avoid cash flow problems, they often lower prices significantly to get work from the jobbers, even with the understanding of harm to the entire industry by reducing profits or causing cases of loss.
b. Drastically increasing the profit portion of the contractors by reducing the wage portion of the laborers.
c. In lack of abilities and skills to renew equipment to improve capacity; failure to provide for the health of workers or the care of children in the factory.
2. The Seasonal Nature of Work
This includes factories. Every year the workflow varies throughout the working season. One cause is the seasonal demand of the market for clothing products, and the other cause is the fact that jobbers with garment factories try to fully utilize their productive capacity and only bring orders for the Chinese contractors during the peak season of spring when they cannot produce a portion of their orders. Apparently, this does not happen all the time, but there is no guarantee [that it will not happen]. In order for the Chinese factory owners to protect themselves, they:
a. Deduct a portion of the contracted price to pay for expenses in both the current and slow seasons.
b. As soon as the peak spring season arrives, the contractors fight and rush to lower prices to jobbers in order to get orders; they pressure workers to work days and nights in hopes of making more profit.
c. [The Chinese contractors] hardly ever have a steady number of workers. At peak seasons, they fight to employ, but come the slow season, workers are tossed away like grass.
3. Lack of Industry Common Sense
Another shortcoming is that the majority of Chinese contractors only know how to calculate net operating income precisely, but they lack managerial knowledge for the business. This results in terrible management, workers wasting much productive time, and low productivity is often reported…. and the current Chinese garment industry experiences the following crises due to the shortcomings mentioned above:
a. Lack of skilled workers-the entire Chinatown garment factory has felt a shortage of skilled workers. According to recent records, the Chinatown garment factory workers, both male and female, are mostly 35-40 years of age. These workers, if not due to living conditions, are unhealthy and weak, and therefore they have difficulty improving. The young and more enegetic sons and daughters of these workers are afraid to join this industry due to the harsh environment. Generally, skilled workers are most attracted to those higher paid, more stable positions of the factories like those of Zhong Xing.[A]
b. Competition-With each Chinese garment factory owner attempting to take orders away from his competitor by lowered prices, and the Westerners [jobbers] have come to learn this, purposely lowering prices. The result, most new Chinese garment factories are having difficulty staying in business. Factory owners who are running out of business due to losses can be found everywhere.
c. The worsened conflict with the National Recovery Administration. Some factory owners, when facing difficulties, their first choice is to reduce wages rather than anything else, and they believe this is the only way out. This caused the gradual decline of garment workers' standard of living, far from the minimum wage set by the National Recovery Administration. This is in direct violation with the regulations of the National Recovery Administration. For those who were fined, they have brought it upon themselves.
d. Workers becoming Dissatisfied-Under these harsh conditions, a portion of the workers are irritated by lagging behind [the rest of the country] and becoming extremely antisocial, and gradually realized the importance of organization. Many are angry and want changes to improve [their standard of living]. The harsh and unbearable work environment of Chinese garment workers especially angered the American public and labor unions. Some uninformed Americans have seriously claimed, "Those who insist on having a lower standard of living than us [Americans] are unfit to live in the U.S." and "industries unable to pay reasonable wages to their workers have no right and reason to exist." No question but that these point to anti-Chinese movements.
It is too bad the Chinese garment factory owners and workers have realized the existence of the above-mentioned crisis, but have always explained the cause of the crisis in terms of Yellow and White racial issues. This reasoning if not the most idiotic, then is attempting to confuse the public purposely. With years of experience and knowledge and no [economic] interest in this industry, the writer proposes two ways to correct this:
a) Contractors should organize as soon as possible to establish punishments for contractors offering prices below the agreed rates. Eliminate all illegal competition. Divide work and time effectively, and muster the entire productivity of Chinatown to reorganize and improve production and the environment of the factores. Establish new rules and regulations for the factories. At the same time, form an alliance to raise the prices. Thus, workers' living condition can be improved, the problem solved.
b) All Chinese garment factory workers if they are desiring improvements in living standards, then they need to improve skills and knowledge. Learn how to familiarize tasks, how to increase efficiencies, or to organize lessons to help each other after work, and organize garment worker celebrations. This establishes personal networks and furthers everyone's knowledge. Workers will become unbeatable, with communication and cooperation; all other problems will be solved. Owners and workers under such conditions need to help and understand each other, because we are all Chinese, helpless living under the rule of foreigners. We need to help each other to make a living in the long run-coexising is the solution.
A. Zhong Xing is Chinese for the National Dollar Stores.