By Tony Angelino
Many years ago the apparel industry started leaving the United States. The common public perception has always been that its cause was the corporate search for cheap labor, but those in the industry know that the principal reason was that Americans didn’t want to sew any more. Sewing was considered to be an unattractive labor career, less interesting and less rewarding than higher-paying ones in the automobile and steel industries, and more physically demanding than those in the service sector. Jobs in those industries were more highly prized, and applicants stood in line for them. Yet willing applicants for sewing positions were impossible to find. Manufacturers were merely trading operators. Very little new talent was appearing at plants, even though the signs were always posted advertising “OPERATORS WANTED.”
Out of necessity, our company opened its first offshore plant using a contractor to make our goods. We had no idea what to expect. It was interesting, intriguing, and provided a host of learning opportunities. The agreement with our contractor allowed us to have representation on site, and even have a say in the hiring, compensation, and welfare of the employees. It’s these employees who made such an impact on me, and have inspired me to write this post.
The sewing-machine operators whom we hired were more than willing employees; they appreciated the work opportunity and approached it as a skilled trade. Education wasn’t an important perquisite for these positions, and most of the operators had only the minimum of school experience. A willingness to learn and good manual dexterity were the key elements to procuring a position with an apparel manufacturer.
Those whom we hired carried with them the work ethic necessary to meet our high standards of production quality, operating efficiency, and on-time delivery to our customers. They maintained these standards day in and day out. At that time, offshore contractors and their employees depended on American companies for high-quality raw materials, sewing equipment, and skilled management. By linking to our country’s vast buying and selling power, along with its distribution and transportation systems, a partnership was formed that benefited each and every one of us. They were our neighbors; they lived in countries located close to the United States, all within the Western Hemisphere.
Our operators were proud people, to say the least. They rightly expected a clean, safe environment in which to work, and a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. And in return, they converted their willingness to learn, and pride in their employment, into an ever-improving productivity.
Notwithstanding the quality of their work, it was their clothing that made the most lasting impression on me. Despite their overall economic situation, it was always neat and clean, and never betrayed any visible holes. If there was to be a special occasion at the factory, such as a ceremony, a visit by a special dignitary, or a celebrated holiday, employees would arrive at work in their Sunday best. And I don’t know what they used to wash their clothes, but I can tell you that they had the brightest whites I’ve ever seen.
It’s possible to extend the lives of pants and shirts by mending holes, and patching knees and elbows, even doing so in such a way that the items still look good. But only so much is possible when it comes to shoes. They do wear out and don’t lend themselves to repair as easily. In the beginning, some of our operators would arrive to work without them. I couldn’t allow employees to not wear shoes, especially since needles often fell on the floor. So a rule was created and all employees had to wear shoes. Once enforced, in came the shoes.
But unlike the rest of their clothes, it was initially a motley collection. There were shoes of all types and sizes (and not necessarily of the correct size for the wearer). I saw shoes held on with strings, shoes held on with straps, and shoes held on with prayers. I remember seeing ripped shoes, torn shoes, and even shoes with big holes in their soles. This was all of great concern to me. On the one hand, I had to compel everyone to wear shoes for safety reasons; on the other hand, it was clear that making them wear shoes in some cases was an economic hardship. I had no choice – the health and welfare of our employees had to come first.
But let’s flash forward in time about fifteen years. I had totally forgotten about our modest start. Shoes were just no longer an issue. Concerns related to our employees now centered on teaching everyone how to use computers, operate new automated equipment, increase speed to obtain better efficiency, and achieve new worldwide standards of production quality. It was quite a different set of concerns.
So how does this story end? One day while working on the sewing floor and wearing my leather shoes, I realized my feet hurt. I began wishing I was wearing tennis shoes like our employees. Like our employees! Yes, some were wearing sneakers from Nike, Reebok, New Balance and every other name brand imaginable. Others were wearing sandals with heals, flats, and even dress shoes. There were no more strings. No more holes. And none were falling off of anyone’s feet. I guess something had been going right over the years. Not only had every aspect of the quality of our products improved, but, more importantly, so had the quality of life for our employees.
The difference was visible and tangible. All you had to do was look at their shoes.CC Image courtesy of bob_jenkins on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/30915363@N00/ / CC BY 2.0 CC Image courtesy of Magnus D on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/magnus_d/ / CC BY 2.0