Labour Films Highlight Workers’ Plight

The Canadian labour movement has designated November as Labour Films Month, and has put together a package of films highlighting the history and struggles of workers in North America and worldwide. These will be shown in 50 different locations across the country.

Locally, the Yukon Employees Union is sponsoring CLIFF, the Canadian Labour International Film Festival, with free showings on Friday, November 19. It’s the second year the festival, founded by Ontario machinists’ union activist Frank Saptel, has toured the country.

An assortment of feature and short films highlights subjects as diverse as the history and politics of the garment trade, the plight of Filipino nannies in Canada, homelessness among steelworker and aboriginal families in Hamilton, Ontario and the history of the world’s only English-language daily socialist newspaper.

The Nanny Business is a short feature from award-winning Canadian director Shelly Saywell. It chronicles the stories of a number of women hired from the Philippines as nannies under an immigration program that entitles them to apply for residency after serving an exclusive two-year contract with a Canadian family.

The seamy underside of the nanny business is illustrated by the story of Edelyn Pineda, who left her three children behind and paid thousands of dollars to a recruitment agency in Canada to make the arrangements and book her with a family.

She arrived to discover that the agent had taken her fee but the “employer” who signed her contract was not interested in her services.

Another woman tells of how she and 16 other nannies were forced to live in her agent’s basement for two and a half months while awaiting employment. Some of them worked 18-hour days when they were finally hired.

Schmatta: From Rags To Riches to Rags, a feature from American director Marc Levin, unravels the story of New York’s garment trade that centred on Seventh Avenue from the 1890s through to the 1930s.

Schmatta, the Yiddish word for rags, symbolized the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. This was one of the most progressive unions in the US, and a haven for many immigrant Jewish workers when they first came to America.

One hundred and fifty of the women perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Doors bolted to prevent theft prevented them from escaping the conflagration.

The fire became an early rallying-cry for improvement in conditions for industrial workers.

Today’s garment trade is a shadow of its former self. As the film points out, 95 per cent of the clothing bought in the US in 1965 was manufactured there. Today, that figure has shrunk to five per cent.

Home Safe Hamilton is one of a series of films, each centred on a major city in Canada, that examines the fallout from joblessness and homelessness on various segments of the local population.

It’s a feature from veteran documentary filmmaker and activist Laura Sky. Her Skyworks Charitable Foundation is an initiative for progressive social action by, in Sky’s words, “making documentaries about current social issues … and then using these documentaries to engage local communities to develop community-based strategies for change.”

There are more films featured in CLIFF, and they represent a rare opportunity to examine issues from a perspective that too often get short shrift in our increasingly corporatized country.

CLIFF’s free film showings take place at 7:00 pm Friday, November 19 at the MacBride Museum.

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