The T-shirt is a staple of the modern wardrobe and it has big ties to Montreal. Recently, Montreal-based shirt behemoth Gildan Activewear has come under scrutiny for labour practices at its Honduras facilities. At the same time, a former Montrealer is forging ahead with a radically different garment-trade business model.
Explainer gets the skinny on the shirt off your back.
1. (Place on Gildan logo) Founded by brothers Greg and Glenn Chamandy, Gildan has recently been accused of unfairly treating workers at its Honduras plants, which it fervently denies. The Maquila Solidarity Network (MSN), a human rights group, alleges Gildan fired workers involved in seeking union accreditation, and says there have been mass firings of workers, insufficient wages, and health and safety concerns at the company’s facilities. "MSN’s approach is accusatory, its findings and methods highly suspect, and its conclusions extrapolations from conditions found elsewhere," states the company. The Solidarity Fund, which is affiliated with the Quebec Federation of Labour, owns 2.6 million shares in Gildan and recently investigated the allegations. But, as The Gazette reported last week, it will not release its findings. Gildan employs 8,500 full-time employees, roughly 5,000 of which are in Honduras.
2. (Place on pic of Dov Charney) Meet schmatte-socialist Dov Charney, a Montreal native who runs American Apparel. Charney’s company is a rarity in the T-shirt trade in that it operates its manufacturing facilities in North America, eschewing cheap labour available elsewhere. "We’re catching the white man with his pants down… we are not pursuing the cheapest means of production, but the most successful," says Charney from his offices in downtown L.A. "I get to know my workers and I know their faces. I can study the production process and optimize it by exploiting human potential, rather than exploiting the cheapest cost." Charney pays his workers minimum wage and up, offers free parking, massages and health coverage. American Apparel has 13,000 employees and makes 10,000 T-shirts a day. Sales for 2003 are expected to hit $80-million.
3 (Place on image of American Apparel T-shirt) More than one billion T-shirts were sold in 1995, but in its original incarnation the T-shirt was never supposed to be seen. The U.S. Navy, which is largely credited with inventing the garment, adopted a crew-necked, short-sleeved, white cotton undershirt to be worn under the uniform in 1913, according to The T-Shirt Book by Scott Fresener. Its purpose was to hide the hairy chests of the sailors (strangely, The Village People’s In the Navy now seems to make so much more sense). In the late 1930s companies such as Hanes, Sears & Roebuck and Fruit of the Loom (which is now owned by Gildan) began marketing the shirt. The Smithsonian Institute displays the oldest printed shirt on record, which features the phrase "Dew-It with Dewey" from New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey’s 1948 presidential campaign.