Sustainable employment or forced entrepreneurship for weak groups in the labour market? - Ready-to-wear manufacturing and trade in 20th century Gothenburg and Helsinki

Research project
Active research
Project owner
Unit for Economic History, Department of Economy and Society

Adlerbertska Research Foundation

Short description

Today, self‐employment, family ownership and small‐scale entrepreneurship are often considered as a solution both to staggering growth and to the persistent problem with under‐ and unemployment especially among young people, immigrants and ethnic minorities in western industrialized nations. While big faceless capitalism of the big multinationals tend to relocate (some of) their production to other parts of the world, small‐ and medium‐sized, family‐owned firms are considered more stable employers.

On the other hand, a large share of modern economic development has stemmed from the activities of big business, especially in countries such as Sweden and Finland, which have heavily depended on their export industry. Small-scale business and service sector was even seen as equal to low productivity, employing low skilled work. Outsourcing and self‐employment trends tend to lead to forced entrepreneurship, not the least among groups in the margin of the labour markets like women, immigrants and minorities. Minorities have been involved in self‐employment, although it is unclear how much this has been a result of forced entrepreneurship and how much of a conscious and deliberate choice.

The project takes its point of departure in these somewhat contradictory debates and narratives. It studies, firstly, the development of self-employed and small-scale entrepreneurship in Finland and Sweden in a long-time perspective, with a specific focus on regional policies to support entrepreneurial activity and self-employment. Secondly, the project studies growth, spread and disappearance of ready-to-wear industry – an industry with a high share of small businesses and self-employment - in two Nordic industrial urban regions: Gothenburg-West Sweden area and Helsinki-area. The study makes a local-level, cross-national comparative analysis of this easy-to-access, labor intensive, low-income industry sector. The overreaching goal is to answer the question about how and to what extent the ready-to-wear manufacturing and trade has reacted and contributed to 20th century economic and social transformations in these two urban settings. The approach is comparative. The significance of these industries was not similar in the two regions analyzed, nor were changes simultaneous.

Nevertheless, common to both countries is that the scale and spatial length of the trade and subcontracting networks have grown immensely during the last globalization period. At the same time many features in the ready-to-wear manufacturing and “rag trade” type of business remain also relatively unchanged: the work itself has not changed much since the invention of the Singer sewing machine. It has been, and is still today, a gendered and ethnically embedded industry. The employed are groups who have weak positions in the labor markets: women and immigrants from abroad or migrants from the surrounding country-side.
The key questions are:

i) Who were the managers/owners of the easy-to-access, volatile field of business often characterized by fierce competition, relocations, sub-contracting and small returns?

ii) Who were the employees, and what was their kinship relation to the owners? Were the relations between employers and employees overlapping in the family-owned, small-scale businesses? What employment careers did these employees experience?

iii) How was employment and work organized in these firms? Did the owners employ sub-contracting and supply-chains? If so, did supply-chains extend across borders or within the local community?
iv) What formed the basis for the entrepreneurial networks and what did those networks look like in these two cities?

v) How did these firms cope in the changing environment which the ready-to-wear manufacturing faced, such as war-time and post-war domestic market protection and since the 1960s, intensifying economic integration?