On the face of it, Canada Goose is a rare example of Canadian business success in turbulent economic times. Appealing to Canadian sensibilities of nationalist goodwill—touting that “the place of manufacturing matters as much as the product itself” in its 2019 Corporate Sustainability Report—the winter apparel manufacturer has mostly withstood the COVID-19 pandemic, posting its biggest sales increase this past year.
But these achievements mask the cost to Canada Goose’s mostly immigrant women workers, particularly those based in the company’s Winnipeg factories, who are facing a number of issues including health and safety violations during the pandemic, bullying from management, job insecurity, and below living wages.
Indeed, Canada Goose has only weathered through the economic downturn of the coronavirus through its recent cost-saving production measures. In May 2020, the company laid off 125 employees—about two percent of its global workforce—a month after re-tooling its facilities, under contract with the federal government, to increase its domestic production of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Across Canada, there are people risking their lives every day on the front lines of COVID-19 in healthcare facilities, and they need help. Now is the time to put our manufacturing resources and capabilities to work for the greater good,” touted Dani Reiss, President and CEO of Canada Goose, in a press release. “Our employees are ready, willing, and able to help, and that’s what we’re doing. It’s the Canadian thing to do.”
Long-time sewing operator Alelie Sanvictores has not been recalled since being laid off last spring. In a report by VICE News, Sanvictores said that while the company has hired back the majority of its workforce, she was not included in the return from furlough.
“They knew I was a union leader,” she said. Among the hundreds who lost their jobs due to the initial shutdown of the Winnipeg factories, Sanvictores had been vocal about the need for benefits and the right to join a union.
Several workers have described labouring under a “climate of fear” at Canada Goose. In a report by the Winnipeg Free Press, employees complained about the lack of sanitation in one facility, and being forced to use outdoor portable toilets. One worker shared that her spouse would drive her back home just to use the washroom, while others reported health and safety violations that pre-date COVID-19 protocols.
With its headquarters in Toronto, Canada Goose has several manufacturing facilities in Canada: three in Manitoba, three in Ontario, and two in Quebec. This domestic production base lends itself well to the nationalist prestige Canadian consumers (and governments) place on a made-in-Canada luxury product, especially compared to other high-end brands that have moved their production offshore to exploit cheaper labour.
Canada Goose is also frequently lauded by the federal government as an example of successful Canadian enterprise and as a job creator, employing 20 percent of Canada’s cut-and-sew industry.
The factory workers in Toronto are unionized under Workers United Local 437, while those in Winnipeg’s facilities are not. According to Workers United, a union representing some 10,000 workers across Canada, Canada Goose employees are driven to work at high speeds by piecework pay, near the province’s minimum wage of $11.65 hour, with limited or no breaks.
Under the Manitoba Labour Board, an application for a union to be certified requires at least 40 percent of the employees to be represented in the proposed bargaining unit. In 2019, about 400 Canada Goose employees (or 33 percent) attempted unionizing at one Winnipeg plant, with 1,200 workers across all three Manitoba factories supporting the unionization. However, the labour board dismissed the application, citing that unionization at just one of the three plants was not representative.
A unionization drive continues among Winnipeg factory workers, despite earlier failed attempts and the removal of workers leading on the effort like Sanvictores.
Workers United says it has filed an “unfair labour practice” charge against Canada Goose, alleging that Sanvictores has not been recalled to work due to her organizing activities with the union.
Canada Goose Union is the latest iteration of this movement, launching a campaign in early 2021 pushing for unionization among Winnipeg garment workers. Together with support from organizations such as the Filipino youth group Anakbayan, community organization Migrante Manitoba and backing from MPs like Leah Gazan, Canada Goose Union is ramping up public pressure on management, calling out the company’s union busting practices, and shining a light on the hypocrisy of majority owner Bain Capital. For all the national pride associated with the “made-in-Canada” product, revered and subsidized by the Trudeau government, the company has been majority owned by the Mitt Romney-founded private investment firm since 2013.
A history of exploitation in the industry
The history of Winnipeg’s garment industry maintains more than a century of exploitation of an immigrant underclass. In the early half of the 20th century, family-run cottage industries grew into larger, mechanized operations that relied on immigrant labour—defined along gender lines—the vast majority being newcomers from Eastern Europe.
By the 1960s, governments and businesses were exploring other sources of cheap labour as white European immigration slowed. During that time, an immigration recruitment drive was launched by the federal government on behalf of the Manitoba Textiles Association, to bring Filipino garment workers to Winnipeg. As an incentive for the program, impoverished migrants from the Philippines would be given free airfare and about $125 spending money. By the time the program ended in 1972, more than 1,200 Filipino garment workers had arrived in Winnipeg, changing the racial dynamic of the city’s working class. Today, with a continued influx of immigrant women from South Asia and the Philippines, this exploited underclass looks very much the same.
Winnipeg’s historic status as a “hotbed for Canadian apparel manufacturing,” was the reasoning employed by Canada Goose chief Reiss for buying up manufacturing facilities in the city, and expanding the company’s Toronto-based production in 2011. Since selling 70 percent of the company’s stake to Bain Capital in 2013, the firm has also expanded globally, selling high-priced winter wear across Europe and Asia.
While machines continue to whir in the Winnipeg factories, garment workers are questioning how Bain Capital has continued to increase profits, while working conditions at Canada Goose factories have deteriorated and attempts to organize have been thwarted. The vulture capital firm has been known to borrow huge sums of money to take over existing firms, slashing jobs to cut corners, suppressing unions, and imposing harsh conditions on offshore workers elsewhere. In an online petition, Workers United poses the question: “Is Bain’s Canada Goose becoming a sweatshop?”
Despite forcing organizing workers out using the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, and violating the health and safety of its employees, Canada Goose still received $4.8 million in federal government pandemic assistance. The company also posted a 39 percent increase in sales and grew its revenue by 4.8 percent from the previous fiscal quarter.
If commercial interests thrive at the cost of workers who create value for companies like Canada Goose, consumers and governments alike should question their self-proclaimed progressive image and sustainability goals. In the end, Canada Goose may believe that “doing good is good for business,” but its real-world practices reveal that it has become just another pandemic profiteer that has succeeded through unfair labour practices and localized exploitation.
Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.