Women leaders in the garment industry - Photographer blog
Women make up around 80% of the workforce in the garment industry but often struggle to have their voices heard.  In Asia and the Pacific there are more than 35 million women working in the garment, textiles and footwear sector. 
We asked women photographers in three countries in Asia to document the stories of women working in the garment industry. Yen in Vietnam, Fabeha in Bangladesh and Anita in Indonesia each spoke to women holding different roles in garment factories to learn what matters most to them. Their stories are inspiring and clearly show the importance of ensuring women’s voices are respected and valued in the garment industry.
Here the photographers tell us in their own words what drew them to this project and why their favourite images made such an impression.
Yen – Vietnam
I've worked a lot on topics concerning women in Vietnam and I'm consistently drawn to covering women's rights in general. Vietnam is one of the biggest manufacturing hubs in the region; garments is a huge sector here. What really drew me to this project was the chance to talk more to the people working in the assembly line.
The assembly line is such a mechanical process – it is repetitive and monotonous. If you spend enough time in factories you understand how exhausting it is to spend more than eight hours sitting still and repeating the same movements with little break – which is what most garment workers do. My preconception as a photojournalist is that most existing images and portrayals of workers seem to turn them into either machines or statistics. That's why I agreed almost immediately to work on this project out of my journalistic instinct. I felt really lucky to have this opportunity to get to know what women were thinking about their work, what their relationship with the employers looks like and how they feel about the assembly line itself.
I love this photograph of Chung, a garment worker, with her little daughter. They were calling her husband so he could see their kids—he works and lives far away in another province, so he only comes home once a month. They keep in touch frequently via video chat.
After spending the whole day with Chung at work, my first impression was how strong and determined she is. And after visiting her at home, I was able to see this soft side of her. As a working mother, Chung also takes care of everything at home: spending time with her children, teaching them homework, cooking, cleaning. Her kids are really attached to their mother, and that was just heart-melting to see.
This is also an image of Vietnamese working mothers that I grew up and became familiar with, and it just reminds me often of how our society still underestimates the values of their contribution at home and at work.
This is Thuan, who has a good job making patterns at a garment factory in Ho Chi Minh City. I took this photo at Thuan’s home when she was getting ready for a meeting of the worker solidarity group which she leads.
She’s been living in this house with her partner in a suburb of the city so that it’s closer to their workplaces. The house is really small, around 10m2, and there is neither a bedroom nor a bed. The mirror is placed next to the main door and this is where Thuan does her makeup, combs her hair and gets ready every day. When I asked Thuan what she wants for the future, the first thing she said is that she and her partner are working hard in Saigon to save up for a proper house.
We had a lot of fun photographing at her home it was nice to see someone so self-confident. We spent a long time chatting and she shared that it is not easy for her to live far away from her kids, who live with their grandparents far away while she works. She found it hard dealing with all the stress of working during the pandemic and living in a big city like Saigon. Despite this, Thuan is a really optimistic person who knows what she wants, and I think that quality is why people look up to her.
Fabeha – Bangladesh
I love to tell people-focused stories which reflect the human experience, so it was a wonderful experience meeting such inspiring garment leaders. Particularly, depicting the unity among workers and their individual experiences of empowerment and equality was phenomenal. The way they have earned more decision-making power within their families and in their workplace, which has changed their lives, is astonishing.
24-year-old textile worker Mukta lives in a nine-square-meter room beside her sister and brother-in-law’s room. They all work in a textile factory: Mukta shares two stoves and one bathroom with her sister’s family.
Mukta has been actively working for the betterment and safety of women garment workers, but this particular image shows another side to her: a woman working hard to finish her studies. Just beside her room, there is a textile factory which produces loud noises all day long; sometimes the work continues until midnight. Amidst this noise and difficult circumstances, she is trying to minimize her living expenses and using her limited income to continue her education in the hopes of changing her life. This makes this image particularly memorable to me.
This is Mushoumi and this photograph resonates with her determination and compassion for the work she does. She has transformed from a very shy woman to someone that every worker from her factory can rely on.
Just before taking this picture, she received a call from her young daughter who lives with Mushoumi’s mother in the village. Mushoumi last went to the village a year ago. She misses her children every day and her mother, who is now suffering from illness. But Mushoumi is working to take care of all their expenses.
She is also standing firm for the rights of her fellow garment workers. The spark in her eyes is a reflection of the advocacy she is continuing, her fight for the rights of her people and herself.
Ruma has been fighting for the rights of garments workers. Because of her continual commitment to advocating for a better workplace for herself and her co-workers, Ruma is well known in her community.
I love this photo of Ruma with her five-year-old daughter in her one-bedroom house. Ruma wants a better future for her daughter. She says she was not able to continue her education because of her family’s poverty. Now she hopes and dreams to educate her only daughter. This image represents how, after so many difficulties and struggles, Ruma wants to change the face of the future.
Anita – Indonesia
As a freelance filmmaker I was really interested in this project because of its focus on women leaders working in the garment industry. I didn’t grow up in an industrial area so I never knew what women do when working in a factory, how they live and what environment they have. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see how women are playing new roles in their families and their communities. Their confidence inspired me so much.
Widi is a beautiful young mother who works at a clothing factory in Purwakarta. When I first met her at her house, she had prepared a carpet on her terrace, snacks and drinks for me as welcome.
Her husband was very supportive as we prepared for the interview and Widi said this was partly due to the training she’d received on gender roles. She had shared all she learned with her husband and he is now much more helpful in lightening her household burdens.
I was struck by the different sides of Widi I saw throughout our time filming. During the CARE training session as part of her EKATA group (worker solidarity group), Widi came across as very powerful as a woman leader. In this photograph of her at home I saw a softer side, with Widi so happy being a mother and being a partner with her husband.
This is Rika, who works in quality control at a garment factory. Rika has the calm assurance of a leader in her role as a worker representative at the factory, but what struck me most were her efforts in her community.
When I visited her, Rika and her community were getting ready to clean up the drainage in their neighborhood. Rika said that many workers who rented nearby just threw their garbage into drainage. She was unhappy with how this blocked drains and created a very unsanitary environment, so she initiated a community cleaning activity with other women in the community, most of whom also work in factories. Watching her coordinate other women, I clearly saw the figure of leader in her.
CARE’s work to promote the voice and leadership of women working in the garment industry is part of CARE’s Made by Women initiative. Learn more at care.org/madebywomen.
1. Better Work, 2019, cited in https://asiagarmenthub.net/resources/2021/wcms_807523.pdf.
2. ILO, Better Work & Cornell University, 2020, cited in https://asiagarmenthub.net/resources/2021/wcms_807523.pdf.
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