Made in Toronto: how the city’s few remaining factories manage to survive
As corporate owners seek out cheap labour overseas, the city’s manufacturing sector has nearly disappeared. The factories that survive have learned to adapt by tapping in to local ingenuity. Here, a snapshot of the workers who keep them running
The rules of the global economy are unforgiving: if a product can be made more cheaply in Sri Lanka, it will be. This partly explains why the Toronto manufacturing sector has shrunk by almost 30 per cent in the past decade. Kodak, a relic in the digital age, closed its 800-person Mount Dennis plant in 2005; Honeywell shut down its 263-person Scarborough operation in 2011; Caterpillar will make its last tunnel-boring machine at its Mississauga factory next year. But more than a few factories remain, and they constitute a significant part of the city’s economy, employing 128,000 people, almost 10 per cent of all workers. Last year, they produced goods worth $13.5 billion. The majority of these plants are in the inner suburbs, primarily in the west end, clustered around highways 427 and 400, and in Scarborough, near the CN marshalling yards—where trains transport raw and finished product. Some local industries are even thriving, especially food production (which requires good access to farms, safe water and a cosmopolitan workforce with a firm grasp of global food trends), pharmaceuticals (which taps in to a local pool of educated workers), and transportation (Bombardier and Ford have developed an intricate local network of specialist parts suppliers). But even those factories are endangered, susceptible to rising property values and the city’s latest wave of residential intensification: Etobicoke’s 60-year-old Mr. Christie plant is set to close this year, eliminating 550 jobs. Its parent company intends to redevelop the 11-hectare site with 27 condo towers.
Zheng moved to Toronto from Shanghai seven years ago, choosing to settle in Scarborough because of its large Chinese community. He has a degree in civil engineering from Shanghai Construction University, but because of his halting command of English and lack of Canadian experience, he took a job at Vinyl Window Designs, a factory that spans a large block in Woodbridge, just north of Highway 7. He carpools, often driving his new Honda Civic. Glass inspection is one of Zheng’s many jobs: he ensures that 1,000 windows a day are solid, smooth and crack-free before approving them to be shipped to GTA dealers like Olympia Windows. He also injects frames with argon, an insulating gas, and rotates through whatever position needs extra attention on a given day. Because the company makes custom residential windows on tight deadlines, it’s somewhat protected from direct competition with producers overseas.
Last summer, Zheng bought his first home, a two-bedroom condo at Kennedy and Ellesmere in Scarborough. Before that, he rented a $550 room in a five-bedroom house. He, his wife and their two-year-old daughter had to share the kitchen and bathrooms with two other families. “Now I have 1,100 square feet,” says Zheng. “Everything is very good.”
In 1978, a teenage Pavlov moved to Toronto from Cambridge, Ontario, to study pattern making at George Brown College. Queen and Spadina was the heart of the garment district, and in one of the brick factories she met Franco Mirabelli, a young designer just starting out. While she honed her craft and opened her own business, employing a team of cutters and junior pattern makers, Mirabelli launched his eponymous line, sending all of his pattern work to Pavlov. “She’s meticulous about everything she does,” he says.
Her business faltered in 1990, when garment factories in other countries began undercutting manufacturers here, and she spent the next decade freelancing out of the Mimico home she shares with her husband and teenage son. In 2005, Mirabelli asked her to work for him full-time. Every workday, she takes the TTC to his studio on Wingold Avenue, paying attention to the fashion choices of her fellow commuters.
For each collection, Mirabelli hands Pavlov his sketches, along with bolts of fabric he’s sourced in Europe. Together, they drape the cloth on mannequins, after which Pavlov designs the patterns. All told, she makes roughly 160 prototypes a year.
The majority of the sewing happens at factories in Scarborough. If a thread colour or zipper placement seems off, Pavlov can visit the factory or have a plant worker bring the piece to her. “You can’t create the perfect dress by emailing with a company overseas,” she says. “You need to physically see it and try it on. It’s the only way to control production and product.” It’s also a way of creating a local economy: any belts that come with Mirabelli garments are made in another shop nearby on Castlefield.
Mempin, his mother and his older brother came to Canada from the Philippines in 1986, settling in Scarborough. He was 20 and shy, so it was his mom who landed him an interview at Metro Label, then a fledgling company with three tiny printing presses. Almost three decades later, Metro has 15 colour presses at its Progress Avenue plant, and Mempin is one of its most senior employees.
His shift starts at 6:30 a.m. His main job is to run the press that prints labels for companies like President’s Choice, Bacardi and Lush. Three days before a job begins, he makes sure that the right materials are in stock, then works with the ink specialist to achieve a perfect colour match, running tests to ensure any fancy foils or shapes turn out properly. Mempin also trains new workers to use the machines, which are up to 160 feet long and full of complicated dyes and UV lights and cutters. Security is tight: labels for pharmaceutical companies like Jamieson are produced in a special caged press area, which ensures none are stolen and sold to counterfeiters.
At 3 p.m., his shift ends, and he makes the 10-minute drive home to the four-bedroom house he shares with his wife, Lynn, and their three kids. She’s usually just waking up—for 12 years, she’s worked at a Scarborough Walmart, restocking shelves between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. She arrived from the Philippines in 1988, sponsored by Mempin. The owner of Metro Label was instrumental in bringing the couple together, writing a letter to Citizenship and Immigration promising to keep Mempin employed and moving up the salary ladder for years to come.
Bedi moved to Toronto from Punjab, India, with her parents and five brothers in 1980. For three decades, she’s worked in the sewing section of Global’s four-million-square-foot facility. Her day starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. She gets two 10-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch, which she usually spends at her work table.
The mostly female staff chat about recipes and children and grandchildren while they work. Bedi helps oversee 53 other women at the plant, who come from places like China, Laos and India. It’s her job to prioritize the furniture orders each day. She moves chair covers from machine to machine as one sewer adds a row of single stitches, another puts in a line of double stitches, and a third trims off any excess fabric.
Up until the 1990s, Global sold to superstores like Staples, with orders in the tens of thousands, until Staples started buying from Chinese manufacturers. Now, Global relies on much smaller batches of custom chairs—most of the orders are sofas for offices, government buildings and hospitals. All of the design and assembly, and most of the manufacturing of parts, is done on-site, and they make some 5,000 chairs and sofas a day.
Amores began working at Cover FX nine years ago, after graduating from Seneca College as a chemical lab technician. The company’s cosmetics are targeted at people with severe acne, burn scars or allergies. They promise to not just mask, but also to treat, those conditions, with anti-aging peptides and acne-fighters like salicylic acid. The $25-million company sells products to Shoppers Drug Mart, Sephora in Canada and the U.S., and Harvey Nichols in the U.K.
Amores’ first position was assembler and picker—she constructed compacts and poured makeup into them, then boxed up individual shipments. As the company grew, she moved up to quality control, where she was in charge of inspecting the factories where all of the makeup is made. For every batch of 1,000 products, she’d choose 32 random pieces to inspect for both aesthetics and quality, tossing those with the wrong colour, look or feel and deciding whether to pass or fail the whole batch.
Her husband, Peter, is a television graphics operator at Sportsnet who works a lot of nights. He often makes the half-hour drive south from their home in Maple to eat lunch with her. Two years ago, the couple had a son, and when Amores returned from maternity leave, she transferred into product development. Now she spends her time brainstorming about the global makeup scene before heading into the on-site lab to assist the head chemist. This fall, Cover FX launched a CC cream, its version of trendy “colour correcting” moisturizers. Amores helped calibrate the right amount of licorice root, which is said to even out skin tone.