We live in a globalized world in which outsourcing production or services to another country has become a way of doing business. For those who have lost their jobs to lower-paid, overseas workers, outsourcing is a painful reality. For workers in an emerging economy like Brazil, outsourcing offers an opportunity to rise out of poverty.
At Italbras Leather Producer & Exporter Ltd.,* I worked with a number of furniture companies worldwide that outsourced the production of their upholstery leather covers. My first and largest client was the Canadian Furniture Company* with factories in Canada and the United States. Italbras had secured this contract owing to its well-equipped factory, with emphasis on worker safety, and fair labor practices: remuneration in accordance with Brazil’s minimum wage plus additional benefits of on-site meals, private bus transport, uniforms, and a medical doctor on duty.
I had direct contact with three representatives at Canadian Furniture in purchasing, production, and quality control. They were friendly, attentive, and responsive to our needs for information and in resolving setbacks.
Production Manager Brandon* and a senior sewing instructor were our first visitors from Canadian Furniture. They came to conduct a two-week training program for the production of complete sets of two new upholstery models. The sewing instructor was a small Asian-Canadian woman in her forties. With Mr. Leonelli,* our Italian Commercial Director, and Brandon walking a little distance behind us, I escorted her to the tannery where our Export Department was located.
After asking her about her trip and hotel accommodation, I said: “The supervisor of our cut-and-sew factory is happy that you’re here. She has lots of questions for you.”
“I didn’t want to come,” she said, smiling sheepishly. “The women in my team said I shouldn’t teach everything… They’re afraid of losing their jobs.”
What could I say? Until that moment, I had not considered the consequences of our cut-and-sew operations for the sewers at Canadian Furniture Company.
The training program was intense and exhausting. Mr. Leonelli assigned me the task of acting as the English-Portuguese interpreter. I learned a few new sewing terms. I’m no professional interpreter. Occasionally, in the rapid back-and-forth exchanges, I switched the languages. I gained an appreciation for the sewing skills of our female staff. Matching up the numerous notches was tough, painstaking work. They made sewing straight line, topstitched seams look like nothing. The instructor emphasized the importance of paying attention to every detail. A tiny error could create problems when mounting the covers on the furniture frames.
Were sewers laid off at the Canadian Furniture Company as a result of outsourcing some of their production to Italbras? It was not my place to ask Brandon such questions. Besides, I was in no position to criticize a system that was working in our favor.
Until corporations change the way they do business to create value for their shareholders, workers will continue to suffer the adverse effects of outsourcing.
* Fictitious name