Globalisation, Sweatshops and Indonesian Women Workers

By Becky Ellis

[Becky Ellis is a Marxist feminist and a member of the Resistance Collective (Canada)]

 All around the world, especially the first world, governments and corporations sing the praises of globalization. New trade agreements and governmental pacts seem to be declared constantly, each one aimed at increasing the profits for global capital. 

All of these agreements and pacts are at the expense of human rights, the environment, workers rights, democracy, and women's rights. People around the world are growing more and more angry at the effects of globalization as can be seen by the mass demonstrations in Seattle in November of 1999.

Women all over the world have suffered the most from globalization. In the advanced capitalist countries, vicious cuts to child care, women's shelters, social assistance, and health care have drastically impacted upon the lives of women. Throughout the world, women and their children make up about 80% of the world's poor.

Indonesia is a country that has been drastically affected by global capitalism. It is a country that for thirty years was run by the US-backed dictator Suharto, who was forced to quit due to militant mass action. Currently, Indonesia is one of the poorest countries in the world after the meltdown of its economy in 1997/1998.

The effects of poverty and globalization are clear in Indonesia-especially on the lives of women workers. In Indonesia, as in many countries throughout the world, corporations have set up free-trade zones where sweatshops operate with little regard for human rights. The following article details the conditions for women working in these sweatshops in Indonesia.

Indonesian women are concentrated in manufacturing, agriculture, trades and services, and make up 70-80% of the textile and garment industry. Official government policy holds that women are already emancipated. However, women do not have full status in society until they are married, and it is state policy that marriage and motherhood are the only acceptable roles for women. The ideal woman worker, according to a well-known saying in Indonesia, is "takut dan malu" or "fearful and shy".

Because of a large number of rural families that have been pushed off their land by the military to make way for private developments, and a sharp downturn in available work in agriculture, young rural women flock to the cities seeking jobs.

These women are considered the best workers and are hired by the large factories for their manual dexterity, supposed tolerance for monotonous tasks and greater obedience than women from urban areas. The majority of women factory workers in Indonesia are under 25 years old, single and poorly educated.

Working conditions

Textile and garment industry workers receive very low wages. The minimum wage is Rp5200 (US$2) per day. The government estimates that the minimum daily amount required to meet basic needs is Rp6200, but this figure is based on the lowest of living standards.

Many employers do not pay even the minimum wage, and women workers are paid less than the men in most industries.

A 1989 study of a range of factories in north Jakarta found that 72.55% of workers were paid below the minimum wage. Many companies get away with this by bribing government officials. It has been estimated that 2-10% of production costs is paid in wages, while 30% is paid in bribes.

Women's usual working conditions include long hours, abusive environments, unhealthy conditions and restrictions on the right to organize.

A recent study at a Bandung textile and garment factory found that the workers worked 12-14 hours each day. Another study of a Nike factory in Java found that women workers were permitted to have only two days off a month. In many factories, overtime is compulsory and paid erratically.

By law, workers are entitled to sick, religious, holiday, menstrual and pregnancy leave. In reality, they are rarely permitted to take any leave, and those who persist in doing so are fired. According to reports on Nike factories in Java, workers who are too ill to work are required to spend the day resting in the factory's mosque.

Workers often have money deducted from their wages for things such as fabric flaws and broken needles. At a shrimp paste factory in Java, the workers have to pay Rp50 for the "privilege" of washing the smell of shrimp paste off their hands.

Verbal, physical and sexual abuse are commonplace. A former supervisor at a Nike factory reported that he was trained to yell "Fuck you" and "Move, hurry, you stupid bitch" at the women workers.

Other reports of abuse include supervisors at a shoe factory hitting women workers on their behinds with the out-soles of shoes when they slowed, workers being punished at many factories by being made to run laps around the building, and at several Nike factories, women workers being forced by supervisors to run between their various work sites.

Industrial accidents are also commonplace. A company nurse told researchers that he regularly threw fingers out in the trash heap. In one factory, a 22-year-old woman was scalped when her hair caught on a conveyor belt. Workers rarely receive compensation, and when they do, it does not cover medical expenses.


The workers' low wages means that they also live in very poor conditions. Some factories provide accommodation for their workers, usually housing compounds consisting of large brick buildings which are severely overcrowded. At one Nike housing compound, each room houses 12 women. Each room contains six bunk beds and virtually no walking space.

It is common for workers' quarters to have only one or two toilets for 50 to 100 residents. Water is scarce in these quarters, and workers are often forced to buy expensive bottled water. A study of women workers in Malang found that 68% had no washing facilities or running water at home.

Not surprisingly, the health of women workers is generally very poor. Ailments commonly reported by women textile workers include iron deficiency anemia, depression, chronic tinnitus, occupational bronchitis, menstrual disorders, muscle strain disorders and hearing loss.

One survey estimated that 40.3% of women workers in Jakarta have iron deficiency anemia, 30% are infected with intestinal parasites and 88% are malnourished.

There is also mounting evidence that life-threatening disorders are being contracted at work. One study at a textile factory in Bandung revealed that some of the dye workers had bladder cancer, which has been linked to the carcinogens present in locally used dyestuffs.

Women have been at the forefront of struggles for workers' rights in Indonesia. Strikes in all industries have increased substantially over the past decade (in 1994, there were 1130 strikes), and there are numerous examples of the integral role of women in these protests.

Workers who take up the struggle are regularly intimidated, harassed and abused by the military, and are often sacked. In 1993, a woman named Marsinah who organised a strike at her textile factory was found floating, murdered, in a river near the factory.

In 1998, during the mass mobilizations, the Indonesian "government" finally made trade unions legal. Many women have joined the fight for worker's rights. One of the most notable feminists and trade union activists in Indonesia is Dita Sari. Sari is a former political prisoner who is now the chairperson of the Indonesian Popular Front for Labour Struggle. Many women have also joined the struggle for revolutionary change in Indonesia.   International solidarity with women who work in sweatshops and in labour struggles is imperative. Throughout North America, a campaign against sweatshops has been growing as part of a larger movement against globalization. Through international solidarity, women's and workers' rights will win over the interests of private greed.

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