Women workers in Indonesia - Not mere victims of exploitation but also agents of social change

The recent Global Alliance report (February 2001) on workers' rights (mostly dealing with young girls) in 9 Nike factories in Indonesia has once more brought to the fore the ruthless character of the regime in the factories belonging to this American multinational. If the claim made by a so-called 'surprised and disturbed management' is to be believed, then the conditions in the factories reviewed would be amongst the most "progressive in the country".

The recent Global Alliance report (February 2001) on workers' rights (mostly dealing with young girls) in 9 Nike factories in Indonesia has once more brought to the fore the ruthless character of the regime in the factories belonging to this American multinational.

If the claim made by a so-called 'surprised and disturbed management' is to be believed, then the conditions in the factories reviewed would be amongst the most "progressive in the country".

It is in fact very disturbing to find that the most "progressive" labour practices in this country include sexual and verbal harrassment, very limited access and even denial to medical care (which has been directly responsible for the death of at least two workers) and compulsory overtime. This confirms the view of many worker activists in Indonesia that the Nike conditions are not really an exception to the general of exploitative methods of capitalism.

Wages levels in manufacturing industry, especially in the textile, garment and footwear industries, are the lowest in South East Asia . They are even lower than in China. Arguably they must be the lowest in the world. The Indonesian government is deliberately promoting the "low labour cost structure" of its companies to foreign investors. Compare, for instance, the labour costs in the clothing industry in 1998. Expressed in dollars per hour, including benefits, in Mexico the rate is 1,51 US$, Guatemala 1,28 US$, China 0,43 US$ and Indonesia is at the bottom with a rate of 0,16 US$. (1)

These labour costs (at this abysmally low level it is even difficult to treat them as real labour "costs") can only be maintained through ruthless methods. To understand this one only needs to take a quick a glance at some of those practices.

"Female workers in one factory told researchers from the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities that they were forced to trade sexual favours to gain employment. Nearly 8% of those interviewed said they had been on the receiving end of unpleasant sexual comments, 2.5% reported unwanted sexual touching and 30% said they had witnessed or experienced abuse. The vast majority of the approximately 4,400 people questioned in hour-long interviews at nine factories said they felt coerced to work overtime in order to meet production targets, even though overtime is voluntary under Indonesian law. Among other incidents documented in the 104-page report, commissioned by Nike, were two deaths in separate factories which workers believed were related to the denial of medical attention. Almost half of those questioned said clinic facilities were unsatisfactory, while many said their supervisors allowed them to visit clinics only after they had collapsed. Many women, who make up most of the labour force in the factories, said they were denied their two-day monthly menstrual leave allowed under Indonesian law. One woman said a supervisor threw a book at her for working slowly while other staff were forced to run around the factory grounds or clean toilets if their pace of work was not fast enough." (2)

Very little has changed since the first report in 1996 on the Nike factories. That report revealed that the local communities described the women in those factories as "Walking ghosts working in Satan's factory". The state of exhaustion of the young women described in that earlier report can be easily understood. They left their village to go to work each day at 4am, only to get back after 8pm.

At that time a supervisor working at Nike in West Java informed the investigation team of the special skills he was expected to learn: "skills to control women, which usually translated into verbal abuse such as 'Fuck you' and 'move you stupid bitch', to be used indiscriminately against the workers". Another skill he was taught was to force the women to run: "Run to the lunch room and basically make them run everywhere they have to go, even if they are not even working."

It is no accident that multinationals like Nike prefer to employ young girls from remote and rural areas. They are regarded as being more subservient and obedient because of the patriarchal traditions in the villages. They are brought up not to protest but to accept their fate.

But one would get a completely distorted and very wrong view of the situation if one were to look only at this aspect. Indeed it has become very fashionable to present women workers as mere suffering, passive and weak victims of capitalist exploitation, poor victims who have to be saved by the joint action of well intentioned Non Governmental Organisations and by a 'concerned and ethical management'.

The process of industrialisation under the dictatorship of Suharto, in particular during the second wave at the end of the 1980's has created a large workforce in non-gas and non-oil manufacturing industry. Industrialisation implies proletarianisation. Millions of young people, many of them girls, have been thrown straight from the remote village into the social cauldron of the modern capitalist factory. Statistics from 1990 show that 8,2 million people were working in manufacturing compared to approximately 3,5 million in 1980.

Now the economic crisis has led to a situation where one third of the workers are either unemployed or underemployed. Older women in the factories have been replaced by younger ones. However, in spite of this, the profound social impact of the wave of expansion of the industrial working class, that took place towards the end of the 1980's, has not been obliterated.

In the 1970s the relationship between workers and bosses was still very much coloured by the social relations prevalent in the villages. However, at the end of the 1980s labour movement activists began to note the breakdown of this "conservative village" mentality and the emergence of a distinct urban working class consciousness. The objective process of the formation of a new working class, thanks to massive industrialisation, after a period, also tends to lead to the subjective growth of the class, i.e. to its becoming conscious of being part of a social group. The average level of education of this new generation of workers was also higher than in earlier waves of expansion. This was further strengthened by the development of new industrial centres and with them the formation of urban working class communities (typical working class areas or 'kampungs' and also the massive dormitories that were built close to the factories).

This has also affected women. Women represent the majority of the workers in the textile, garment and footwear factories. This is the major industrial exporting sector of the Indonesian economy. Compared to the lives of their mothers, sisters and even brothers who stayed in the village these factory women have gained a strong advantage in terms of wages and conditions. The village life is still the poorest of lives (in terms of income, as well cultural levels). This is true even when wages are at, or even below subsistence level.

One report on women workers points out that in one village "factory workers exhibited an air of assertiveness compared to their peers who had never worked in a factory". (3) Others report that younger workers are learning from the previous experience of labour struggles and that women are joining collective and planned actions as well as taking part in spontaneous protests. It is a matter of fact that many of the workers' protests at the beginning of the 1990s in Indonesia were led by women. In discussions with some of those women they will tell you that their male colleagues at their factories are "weak and cowards" because they do not dare to stand up to the boss.

It was in 1994 that a famous worker activist called Marsinah was raped, tortured and killed by the military for organising the girls and women from a match-making factory in East Java. Here name has become a household name for hundreds of thousands of women and men. It is quite common to hear street-singers, in the 'warungs' (small street restaurants) of Jakarta or on the buses taking workers home, praising her name and action. Marsinah has become a symbol for every fighting woman and man in Indonesia.

It was in the same period that Dita Sari, a young law student, became involved in workers' action and took the lead of thousands of workers in Surabaya before she was sent to jail in 1996. After being freed she became the leader of one of the most radical unions, the FNPBI (National Front for Indonesian Workers' Struggle), which is made up of a majority of women. In Solo, the independent union FSBS is also led by a woman.

It is not known that in 1998 the protest movement, which led to the final downfall of the hated dictator Suharto, was started by mothers in the slums of Jakarta who were protesting against the 400% increase in the price of milk. And there are numerous other more anonymous girls and women who refuse to be portrayed as passive and docile elements.

It is important to note that those women workers move into action not as part of a 'specific gender' (not purely as women) but as part of a social class, the working class. The biggest women's organisations are the workers' unions, a fact which a lot a petit-bourgeois feminists fail to understand.

Of course there are still a lot of women who are not yet organised. Take for instance the new domestic slaves who are exported to the Arab countries or Singapore. These young girls, drawn directly from the villages by unscrupulous recruitment agents, are being compelled to sign contracts forcing them to work for many years as domestic servants for the middle classes in that part of the world. They have almost no protection under the labour laws of these countries. Many are brutalised or even sexually abused.

Recently one of these Indonesian girls stabbed her boss to death after having been regularly raped by him. She was sentenced to death by the Saudi Arabian justice system. This provoked a strong movement of indignation among Indonesian women who started to mobilising demanding her release. This movement finally succeeded in getting her back home to her village.

In spite of all this, women still remain a section of the working class that needs to be organised. The individual reaction against the brutalisation of this one servant has to be lifted to a higher level, to that of collective organisation. Nevertheless her action, and the movement that developed around her case, represents the first stirrings of revolt among women in Indonesia and their breaking out of the psychological shell of passive acceptance of their fate.

Indeed, women have become the cutting edge of working class resistance in Indonesia, as is the case in many other countries in South East Asia. They have nothing to expect from "concerned NGOs" or 'ethical' bosses or petit bourgeois feminists who want to derail the process of class consciousness along the lines of "interclass" gender consciousness. They can only rely on their own strength in unity with their male worker colleagues. Their combativity and courage, combined with Marxist analysis and strategy, will put the working class women together with their sisters, the peasant women in the rural areas, at the head of the process of social transformation, which is the very basis upon which human relations can be transformed.

Jean Duval,
March 5th, 2001

Notes to the text:
1. Stratfor, 15/12/2000, in 'Asia's Coming Textile Boom'.
2. The Guardian, 23/2/2001.
3 Diana Wolf, Linking women's labor with the global economy: factory workers and their families in rural Java, 1990.