First clothing factory
The New Zealand Clothing Factory was set up in Dunedin in 1873 by Bendix Hallenstein. He had found it difficult to import clothes for his general stores in Invercargill and Queenstown, partly because of transport difficulties, and also because imported clothes didn’t necessarily suit local needs.
The New Zealand Clothing Factory made basic, hard-wearing clothing for men and boys – initially in Dunedin, and then in many towns and cities. In 1876 Bendix Hallenstein opened shops as a sales outlet for the factories; by 1900 there were 34 Hallenstein Bros shops around the country.
Women in clothing factories
Most clothing-factory employees were young women working between leaving school and getting married. In Dunedin in 1901, 27% of the workforce was employed in the clothing industry. 80% were women.
While men did the heavier work of cutting and pressing, women did the machining and finishing. They were paid according to the skill level required for their particular job, but were paid much less than men.
First factory legislation
The Employment of Females Act 1873 restricted women’s work in factories to eight hours per day, and prohibited work after 6 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The Act applied to clothing workers in factories and workshops, even those with just one employee.
Although it was not well enforced, the act did improve conditions for women in factories, and more parents were prepared to let their daughters work there. Even so, in the early 1890s an Auckland factory manager was said to have commented that he ‘thought no more of the girls than the machines they worked, and that it was his duty to make the very last shilling out of them’.1
The Employment of Females Act did not cover outwork – when women were given work to do in their homes, such as sewing on buttons. Sometimes women did a day’s work in a factory or workshop and also took work home. In other cases, warehousemen gave work to women to do at home and paid them very low rates.
The sweating scandal
In 1888 the low pay and bad conditions for women working in the clothing industry came to national attention when a Dunedin Presbyterian minister, Rutherford Waddell, preached a sermon on sweating, ‘The sin of cheapness’. Otago Daily Times reporter Silas Spragg investigated and wrote articles exposing the problem.
As a result, the government set up an enquiry in 1890. Known as the Sweating Commission, it looked not only at outwork and the clothing industry, but at conditions in factories and workrooms in a variety of industries. This led to the Factories Act 1891, which set up a system of factory inspection resulting in improved working conditions.
The Tailoresses’ Union, the first women’s trade union in New Zealand, was formed in late 1889, just before the Sweating Commission began its work. Tailoress Harriet Morison became the first vice president (and shortly afterwards, secretary), while Rutherford Waddell was the first president. In 1906 Morison was appointed a government inspector of factories.
Tariffs and import licences
The government put a 15% customs duty on clothing in 1866 as a way of gathering revenue. The tariff, which was raised to 20% in 1888, also offered some protection to local producers.
From 1938 the government used import licences to restrict the amount of clothing brought into New Zealand. It also increased tariffs – customs duties charged to importers, who paid the government a percentage of a garment’s price. Tariffs varied, but were as high as 65% on some clothing items in the following decades.
Protected by high tariffs, the New Zealand clothing industry boomed. In the 1950s it employed about 80,000 people. Many clothing factories were set up in lower North Island towns, including Foxton, which had been the centre of the flax industry and already had the necessary infrastructure and skills.