Arist Merdeka Sirait is a founding member of KOMPAK, the Indonesian Committee for the Creative Education of Child Workers. He wants to see protection for child workers in the form of humane and regulated working conditions. But the Indonesian government has turned a blind eye to child workers. Meanwhile the International Labour Organisation's IPEC (International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour) wants the practice abolished altogether. This proposal horrifies Sirait. He says IPEC is responding to international pressure rather than the needs of the child workers themselves. 'If you eliminate it entirely, who is going to give them food? The ILO?'
'The children working now do so because of their background. They want to eat. For that reason they have to be protected. It means that if we protect child workers then the government can pay attention to regulating the situation, and consequently we can reduce the incidence of child labour. That is what we mean by protection.'
Sirait points out that although the Indonesian government is a signatory to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, little has changed for child workers since then. This ambivalence towards the law both on the part of the government and the companies involved in the pursuit of economic interests means that the number of child workers in Indonesia is increasing day by day.
'In 1994 the number of child workers in the industrial sector increased from 7.9% to 12.6%, which brings the total figure for this sector to around 1.9 million children.'
It is illegal in Indonesia to employ children under the age of 14 years except in special circumstances. However, it seems the companies are able to overcome this obstacle administratively, by making underage children sign statements that they are older. Government requirements to uphold the law are thus seen to be complied with.
Sirait tells of children working with hazardous materials such as chemicals and glues without protective clothing. They suffer a range of health problems as a result, such as bronchial conditions, eye infections, and skin rashes. Others are forced to work 12-hour shifts, including unpaid overtime. Although many work alongside adults, their wages are considerably lower. If they miss a day through illness their wages can be deducted. When they complain they are usually dismissed. Child workers are unable to join workers' unions, so there is no organisation responsible for monitoring their welfare or working conditions.
Sirait says one only has to look at the background of these children to understand why they endure these conditions. They come from poor, usually landless families. There is also thecultural factor. For many parents, having a child working is also a process of education and family socialisation. And then there is the Indonesian education system, which Sirait says does not accommodate a child's potential or creativity.
'My argument here is based on the reasons given when I ask the child worker if they are happier working in the factory than going to school. In the factory they have money while at school they don't. It is very difficult for a child to open a book at school if he or she does not have the money to buy it. While it is difficult to do the dangerous work in the factory, there is the financial return. That is the motivation encouraging the children to work there.'
Sirait warns that unless something is done, child workers will flood the labour market, and a whole generation of Indonesians will suffer.
Besides regulation, Sirait would like to see awareness amongst consumers about products made from child labour, greater understanding among intellectuals about the situation of child workers and, at the national level, acknowledgment that child labour does exist. Sirait also supports a boycott of goods made with child labour, but stresses it must be conditional.
'If the government does not accommodate the interests of child workers who are being exploited, I agree with the boycott. But a boycott must be conditional, not to just eliminate child workers. It should be used as an instrument to encourage the companies, as well as the government, to protect child workers.'
According to Sirait, it is possible for children who need a wage to be able to work and receive an education at the same time. This could be done by reducing the so called 'hidden costs'. Sirait says labour costs in Indonesia total a mere 8% of total production costs. The hidden costs - under-the-table payments to officials - amount to between 32% and 35%. If these hidden costs were reduced, then expenditure on labour could be increased, enabling the companies hiring children to establish schools at the factories. The children could still work, but after work they would have to attend education programmes provided by or paid for by the companies.
KOMPAK was established in 1988 by several activists. It was the first Indonesian organisation to specifically address the problems facing child workers. KOMPAK, meaning solidarity, set about establishing programmes for the children. These include informal education for creativity and personality development at their six open houses called learning or drop-in centres. Here children learn writing, reading, politics, social analysis, children's rights, sexual harassment and so on. There is a basic library, and also indoor sports facilities so the children have an opportunity to play as well as learn.
Consultation on sexual harassment and stress therapy is also available. Stress therapy programmes deal with forced marriages and cultural conflicts for child workers who have migrated to the city. Parents are encouraged to attend the learning centres so they can understand more about the conditions in which their children work. KOMPAK also has a campaign and advocacy programme.
KOMPAK works in and around the Tangerang and Bogor regions, focussing on the 12-14 year age group in the industrial sector. Around 92% of the child workers they deal with are girls. This, explains Sirait, is due both to cultural and economic factors. The girls are more passive and therefore easier to exploit, while parents faced with the choice of taking a child out of school to supplement the family income will often favour their son's education over the daughter's. Because of the long hours that many children work during the week, KOMPAK's education programmes are held on weekends. They have 227 regular members, with around 850 attending their annual jamboree. ii
Wendy Miller is a post-graduate candidate at Monash University.