Real lives

In Asia alone there are over 15 million garment workers, many of whom are living away from their families, trying to earn enough to live a decent life. Here are some of their stories.

Portraits of Cambodian Garment Workers

The garment industry is the largest sector of the Cambodian economy, representing Cambodia’s 95% of the country's exports.  It employs over 500,000 people, the majority of whom are women who have travelled to the city to find work in the industry.

Working six days a week, 8 hours a day, the minimum wage is just US$80 (including a $5 health bonus), barely enough to meet their basic living expenses.  For many the lack of a living wage means risking malnourishment, which in recent years combined with poor working conditions has caused numerous incidents of mass faintings and collapses in the factories over recent years.

Steffi Eckelmann a German photographer took a series of portraits of garment workers and interviewed them about their lives and dreams.  You can view a selection below and read more about Steffi's work here.

Daily reality

The garment workers interviewed and photographed by Steffi mostly live in rented rooms in a Phnom Penh suburb near the garment factories producing clothes for international brands.

Three to six women share just one room, not bigger than 8 square metres, often even without a window or any fresh air.  No furniture, simple plastic sheets on the floor to sleep on, a toilet and portable gas stove with some pots for cooking. The women share the cost of the room, of water and electricity which amounts to about US$ 30-40 per person per month.

All the images are protected by copyright. Reproducing or distributing an image or part of an image in any form or manner is illegal.  They may not be published without prior permission from Steffi Eckelmann.  © Copyright 2013 Steffi Eckelmann

Ratna’s dream: a safe pregnancy

Ratna was 8 months pregnant and working as a contract worker in Bangalore, India,  when she began to suffer labour pains.  She had no choice but to go to work as it was a salary day and she could not afford to miss her wages – if she was not present she would have to wait until the end of the month to receive her pay. 

The pains worsened around 10 am. She approached her supervisor for permission to leave, but was told she must ask permission from the manager.  She was finally able to leave at 12.30pm, but was further delayed by the security guards. 

By the time she left the factory she could barely walk 10 feet and ended up giving birth on the footpath.  It was too late to save the baby, with the umbilical cord uncut due to no proper healthcare, by the time she reached home her baby had died.

Phalla’s dream: Saving for her own atelier

Phalla works in a Cambodian garment factory and earns US$120 a month including overtime, she supports her family including her parents who are sick and also has health problems of her own.

Phalla's dream is to save enough money to go to school and open her own atelier, but she says saving money as a garment worker is impossible. “I can never save any money,” she said. “If I did, my parents would die and I would too.”

Nupur’s dream: to finish school

Before starting work in a garment factory in Bangladesh, Nupur, 19, was living in a village and attending school but was not able to continue after the 5th grade.

Her parents could not pay the school fees anymore. Nupur and her father are the only breadwinners in the family. Her father cannot work all the time due to a chronic disease.

The family depends on Nupur’s wages as a garment worker.