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Raising their voices for change: women garment workers speak up

Their speeches may not have made history, but their voices are making life better for peers. As COVID-19 wreaked havoc across the garment industry in Asia and the Pacific region, these women made their voices heard in favor of better conditions, an end to wage theft, and assistance for those left unemployed.

Women make up around 80% of the workforce in the garment industry* but often struggle to have their voices heard.

There are more than 35 million women working in the garment, textiles, and footwear sector in Asia and the Pacific.** The traditional image of a women seated at a sewing machine on an assembly line shows just one aspect of garment-worker life; their reality is more diverse and nuanced.

CARE spoke to inspiring leaders in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia to learn what matters most to them, and documented their stories via women-led photography teams from each country. These women are leading changes within their factories and communities, a task that grew exponentially more difficult when COVID-19 brought about lockdowns, closed borders, and idled factories.


*source: Better Work, 2019
**source: ILO, Better Work & Cornell University, 2020


Textile worker Mushoumi does daily chores before leaving for work. She also works as an EKATA leader and is actively involved in protecting worker's rights. Photo: Fabeha Monir/CARE


Moushoumi: learning to speak up for herself and others

In Bangladesh, the Empowerment, Knowledge and Transformative Action (EKATA) model has been developed to promote collective empowerment of women. It’s a solidarity-group model that promotes workers’ rights while encouraging women’s leadership and empowerment within the garment industry.

Mushoumi, 27, is one of nine leaders at her local EKATA center, providing support to the 90 members of this worker solidarity group. Yet, as she recalls, she had to be persuaded to run for her position, protesting that she was not comfortable speaking up. But when she stood for election, she won. Today, she is known as someone who is not afraid to speak out on behalf of other workers.

“Now as a leader I always try to speak up for other female workers if they need help,” she says. “I have learned how to make sure my rights are respected. Every female worker has the same rights as I do.”

Many don’t see their children for months at a time, while others have been home-schooling their kids on their own while partners work elsewhere. Some have spent years working on the production line; some have worked their way up into skilled office roles. All have faced difficulties because of the COVID pandemic.

COVID led to many factory closures and Mushoumi, like many workers, found herself out of a job. She quickly gained a position at a new factory, but within a few months she and nine of her colleagues faced unlawful dismissal without proper compensation.

“’Did we do anything wrong?’ I asked. ‘Is there a complaint about our work?’ He said no. ‘So why are you trying to dismiss us?’ I asked. I asked for four months’ salary and notice. And he replies that that’s not their procedure. I said that I won’t leave. Why would I leave? I have worked here productively for so long.”

Mushoumi knew her rights and stood her ground. Supported by her group, she threatened legal action unless management paid what she was owed and let her keep the job. Mushoumi also insisted they recognize the rights of nine others threatened with dismissal, ensuring 10 families continued to earn valuable income.

Yen meets with her group members and colleagues at Speed Motion Factory in Loc Xuan District, Thanh Hoa province, May 2021. Photo: Yen Duong/GMBFilms/CARE


Yen: an important voice for frontline concerns

Yen, an HR Officer at a Vietnamese factory, is an important mediator between rank-and-file workers – most of them women – and company management. Each week, she meets with workers to understand their concerns, then conveys those concerns to management.

“It is important that employees have the opportunity to speak with the factory’s managers,” Yen says. “Let the leaders know about the employee’s issues, and their wishes too.”

Yen conducted research on the issues faced by women workers and found many were experiencing health problems such as back pain from sitting for long hours. So she suggested many little ways to improve the work environment, such as regular exercise breaks and increasing the availability of drinking water.

Yen has grown in confidence since becoming leader of a worker solidarity group. Her experience leading this has made her more assertive about presenting suggestions to management.

“The group was expected to create an environment for the workers to chat after a hard-working day,” Yen recalls. “It was just for chatting at first. Then once they overcame their shyness, then they were willing to talk with us, the HR managers, or the trade union staff.“

When the COVID pandemic resulted in redundancies at the factory, Yen did all she could to help workers receive unemployment benefits and help them find new jobs.

“With female leaders, the gender gap is narrowed,” Yen observes. “Women understand each other’s issues and have a better sympathy for each other.”

Rika pauses for a portrait in her workplace. Photo: Anita Reza Zein/GMB Films/CARE


Rika: speaking up for working mothers

For the past eight years Rika has been a quality-control manager at a garment factory in Indonesia, as well as a worker representative. Rika also leads a community solidarity group for workers from three factories. In that role, she both addresses work challenges as well as community issues.

In her leadership role: “I ask them to discuss any complaints or issues they may have that happens either in their family life or when they’re at work,” she says. “Then I help my colleagues to find solutions. I help colleagues or worker representatives to convey their messages to management so the problem will be quickly resolved.”

One issue? Not enough time for mothers of infants to pump breastmilk.

“Some employees are afraid… that if they leave for a while to pump breastmilk, their work will pile up, so then the supervisor will be angry at them,” Rika says.

Rika knew mothers had the right to pump without interference, so she brought that concern forward.

“As a female leader, I encourage female workers who previously did not dare do things such as breast-milk pumping, and they can report it to the management if there is a supervisor who prohibits or does not allow the employee to pump,” she says.

Like Moushoumi, Yen, and many others who have stepped out of their comfort zones and into leadership, Rika grown through her service in this role.

“I’ve become more courageous in expressing my opinions,” she says. “As a female leader, I want women to be more courageous, and to not be afraid.”

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