Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

The walking ghosts of West Java

Published: Sep 30, 2007

PETER HANCOCK finds that women in a rural Nike factory are considerably worse off than those who work in other factories.

In July last year, I began a project researching female factory workers in a rural area of West Java known as Banjaran. About two months into the research I visited a village about 8.00 pm on a week night to survey factory workers. I entered on foot as the roads were so bad that no form of transport was available during the night time in the rainy season.

I asked an old man where I could find women who worked in the Nike factory. He replied that they had not returned since leaving at 4.00 am the previous morning. I was puzzled, and he explained that all the factory workers worked for Feng Tay (Nike). I had little chance of seeing them, as even their own families rarely saw them.

He said the local community called the women from Nike 'walking ghosts who work in Satan's factory' (mereka pergi dan pulang seperti hantu dari pabrik Setan). If I wanted to speak with them I would have to become a ghost myself, he added.


1997 will be a boom year for Nike. Profits are up, orders are going through the roof and Nike now dominates the sports shoe market internationally. Worldwide, Nike revenues in 1996 were up 55% from the previous year, over the US$2 billion mark. Orders for 1997 indicate another 50% increase in revenues to over US$4 billion for that year. Each year Nike commands an even greater share of the market, the result of a massive marketing campaign using key sports personalities such as Michael Jordan.

Nike was born out of the great globalisation of manufacturing that occurred in the 1970s. It has profited from exploiting the comparative wage advantage offered by poor nations, usually in Southeast and mainland Asia.

Nike began full production in Indonesia in 1988, and by 1996 one third of its shoes were produced there. Nike claims that its presence in Indonesia has benefitted the whole country. In 1994 Nike released this statement in its Production Primer:

'As a player in Indonesia's economy, Nike is part of a plan that has succeeded in increasing per capita income ten-fold since 1970 while decreasing those living in poverty from 60% to 15% in the same period.... By supporting light manufacturing, Nike contributes to the increase of workers' skills, wages and capabilities.'
Here Nike attempts to claim some credit for the improvement in Indonesia's economic situation since the 1970s. However, Nike did not fully enter Indonesia until 1988. Nike uses Indonesian state statistics, themselves highly questionable, as a form of propaganda to silence its many critics. Furthermore, turnover rates in the Nike factories researched are so short that workers receive few of the benefits mentioned above.


According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Indonesian government, women are given special protection when employed in the formal labour market. Major protections include a requirement that women only work a 40 hour week and are paid the minimum wage, which in 1996 was indexed to Rp 5,200 or US$2.00 per day in the major economic regions of West Java.

However, in July 1995, 13,000 textile workers went on strike in West Java over the failure of a state owned textile company to meet these very basic requirements. Of the 3,000 industrial disputes in West Java in the early 1990s, 74% were in the textile sector, Indonesia's most feminised industry. Data collected in Banjaran shows that these protections are not enforced, and that Nike is the least likely of all factories surveyed to abide by national laws.

The ILO has documented 36 Indonesian laws which specifically protect female workers. They range from menstruation, pregnancy and lactation leave to equal rights in employment, promotion and pay, and many other supportive policies. However, the ILO has also found that these protections are commonly ignored, and in fact lead to further discrimination against women.

Case studies from West Java have found that women work an average of 50 hours per week in factories, not including daily overtime which is compulsory depending upon orders. Moreover, those who claim maternity leave etc are commonly laid off work.

Of all the multi-national factories in Banjaran, which employ predominantly women producing textiles, garments and shoes, the Nike factory rates the lowest in terms of its treatment of workers. When a factory next door to Nike was also given a Nike contract, the impact on the workers there was sudden and negative, as will be discussed below.


Banjaran is a reasonably small though densely populated administrative area in central West Java. It is inhabited by 120,000 people, most of whom are faithfully Islamic. Banjaran is isolated to the north, the east and the west by a large mountain system, and to the south by a sparsely populated and extremely under-developed area. As such Banjaran has been relatively isolated, and the local culture had few outside influences to contend with, until recently.

Since the 1980s industrialisation and modernisation have encroached dramatically upon Banjaran. Factories are now commonplace and partially accepted, though perceived as an 'alien' part of the cultural landscape. Television and improved transport systems have exposed most people to modern influences. Nevertheless, in 1996 the region was still predominantly rural, with rice production the major economic activity. The local culture with its language, rituals and customs remained reasonably strong.


The Nike factory in Banjaran is a Taiwanese joint venture company. Locals usually call it by its Taiwanese name Feng Tay. According to my research, 7,000 workers were employed at Feng Tay in 1996, 75% of them women. Feng Tay has one other Nike shoe factory in Jakarta, and seven others worldwide, mostly in China and South America.

Analysis of the data I collected revealed some important trends regarding Nike's employment practices. Of the total of 323 women surveyed, 42 were Nike employees.

First, compared with other factories, the women employed at Nike were younger. Their age was 16 as opposed to 18. They also have had fewer years of schooling.

In complete contradiction to Nike's propaganda, the average employment span of the female Nike workers surveyed was only 1.7 years, compared to an average of 3.6 years for the entire cohort of women sampled.

Low education, low employment age, a lack of alternative employment and short employment spans, combined with isolation, are all factors that enhance Nike's ability to exploit workers. Nike's exploitation of workers is no better represented by the shorter working life of its female employees, which is almost half that of all women sampled.


Overt resistance to Feng Tay is a luxury the workers cannot afford. In Indonesia public resistance usually leads to trouble from authority - police, military and all levels of government - and loss of jobs. Worse, it could result in black listing or even murder. This is what happened to Marsinah. In spite of these constraints, in October 1996 a group of workers at Feng Tay refused food for three days and worked without eating as they are not allowed out of the factory gates to buy food.

For three days a group of young women worked 12 hour shifts without food in protest at their working conditions. This resistance was not reported in the media. However it was common knowledge in the Banjaran community.

The hunger strike had no immediate impact on working conditions at Feng Tay. Nevertheless, the fact that a group of young women were prepared to 'fight back' is an indication of the changing social and economic roles of young women in the region, especially considering that these same women are traditionally restricted from public protest.


In Banjaran the majority of export-oriented factories treat their female employees in accordance with national laws related to wages and working conditions. However, only one of the 20 factories studied paid the women all their wage, benefits and leave requirements. Most factories granted some allowances and ignored others. Nevertheless, most of the women interviewed from these factories, including their parents or husbands, were generally happy with their employment conditions.

Many factories provide time to allow the women to pray two times a day. If the women worked overtime, an extra praying session was allowed. The large majority of women stated that their daily targets were not stressful. If they did encounter difficulties in meeting their targets, their supervisors were supportive and rarely abusive.

By contrast

However, all the Feng Tay workers interviewed revealed differing levels of harsh treatment combined with very stressful daily targets. Furthermore, Feng Tay does not pay menstrual leave, sick leave, maternity leave, holiday pay, food or transport allowances and rarely pays bonuses, all of which are stipulated in Indonesian labour law.

Table I:
Payment of nationally stipulated working benefits. Only 10 of the 20 factories surveyed are included in this table. These all had a similar number of employees to Feng Tay, were close to Feng Tay, and had a similarly high proportion of female workers -- 75% or more. The percentage values in 'bonus' and 'overtime' indicate the number of women surveyed who said they received them. So only 40% of Feng Tay workers surveyed stated that they were paid the legal hourly rate when they had worked overtime, and only 30% stated they had ever been paid a bonus. A 'yes' in the 'transport' column indicates the factory provided either free transport or paid each worker an adequate transport allowance.

Feng Tay N N N N 30% 40% N
Metro Y Y Y Y 50% Y Y
Hadtex Y Y Y Y Y N Y
Kukje N Y Y N 20% Y Y
Daliatex N Y Y Y N Y N
Adatex Y Y Y Y 80% Y Y
Alanatex Y Y N Y 90% Y Y
Tawekal Y Y Y N N Y N
Delta Y Y Y Y N Y Y
Supertex Y Y Y Y Y Y Y

Most factories demand night work, and overtime is usually available. The women I interviewed had no real complaints about night work and overtime as it enabled them to earn extra income. But at Nike, the overtime is extreme, usually seven days a week.

Table II: Average daily working hours, days a week, and overtime. Data based on answers to questions about the 'usual' number of working days, and working hours during the 'last month's employment', supplemented by pay slips if available.

Hours per day% Who 'usually' work 7 daysOvertime per week
Feng Tay 11.5 hrs 81% 20 hrs
All other factories 8.5 hrs 8% 6 hrs

Many factories provided free transportation where practicable. However, due to the mountainous terrain and poor subsidiary roads, factory buses usually only operate on major roads, forcing many women to walk long distances at night when other local forms of transport have ceased to operate. Nike provides no transportation allowance.


I interviewed a young man who had worked as a supervisor at Feng Tay for five months in 1995. This man left the job because he said he could no longer live with his conscience. He stated that he was shocked during his training as a Nike supervisor by the new skills he was expected to learn: skills to control women. These usually translated to verbal abuse, such as 'fuck you' and 'move you stupid bitch', to be used indiscriminately on the workers.

Another skill he was taught was to make the women run. At Feng Tay supervisors must ensure the women run. They must run to the toilet, run to the lunch room and basically run everywhere they go, even when they are not actually working. He stated that he left the factory because it insulted his culture and his religion, mainly because he was taught to respect women, a fact the Taiwanese did not understand.

Finally, he stated that at Feng Tay it was usual for 100 women to enter as new workers and soon after, usually when the three month training period had ended, for 50 to leave. During the three month training period, daily wages are extremely low.

The former supervisor had kept a journal whilst working at Nike. A quote from it reveals the distress he felt whilst working there:
'I can't stop wishing to leave this hell. I think they (the Taiwanese management) do not understand modern managerial skills at all. They know their position is very important to Indonesia and can do what they please. So we just wait and see, but big trouble will come to this factory. The management is evil. I hope Allah has a better place for the women who work here.'


Despite the existence of an Indonesian national law on minimum wages, I found one woman who had worked for six months at Nike and was only receiving Rp 3,700 per day, well below the legal regional wage of Rp 5,200 per day. She could not explain why, except to say that because she, unlike most of her friends, didn't work seven days a week, she was not entitled to the legal daily wage. Another worker interviewed had previously worked at Feng Tay for 2 years when a serious knee injury forced her to leave. She received no sick pay or compensation for a permanent disability from Feng Tay.

In September 1996 I interviewed a village head from one of the seventeen village administrations that make up the district of Banjaran. The village head is quasi-democratically elected to administer about 7,000 people, and is essentially the last link between the national government and the village. I asked him what he thought about Feng Tay. His reply confirmed my findings.

He stated that Feng Tay was different from all other foreign factories in Banjaran. The village head said it was more like a 'prison'. He knew personally of many women who had left the factory soon after starting work there. He also stated that it was common for community leaders to try and discourage women from entering work at this factory. However, because there is little alternative work for women in some areas of Banjaran, and the need for work was more desperate in some households, women were forced to accept employment at Feng Tay.


I asked for an example of why Feng Tay was exploitative. The village head told me of a recent death of a young woman at the factory. The woman collapsed at midday in the factory from heat exhaustion. She was not taken to the factory medical clinic, but to the mosque, where she lay unconscious for many hours. Later, when she had not regained consciousness, she was taken to hospital, where she died soon after. No one knows why she died, and there was no investigation or compensation from Feng Tay. However, in the opinion of the Banjaran community the woman died of exhaustion and lack of medical treatment.

At Feng Tay if women are sick they must report to work, no matter how serious their illness. If they stay at home and rest, even with the permission of a doctor's certificate, in accordance with national laws, they are instantly dismissed upon returning to work. I know personally of three women who suffered this fate. They all stated they were too sick to walk the long distance to Central Banjaran, and all had certificates from doctors.

If women become ill at work they must stay in the mosque until their shift is finished and then they may return home. If they are still sick the next day, they must report to work as usual and stay all day in the mosque. Women who live in the more isolated villages (some up to two hours walk away) must show up for work or they will be dismissed.

The constant rain during one half of the year means that sick women are forced to walk in the rain and across dangerous terrain merely to sit in the mosque. This practice has been developed by Feng Tay to deter women from taking sick leave. It is indicative, not only of the management's attitude towards the welfare of its employees, but also of Nike's complete disregard for workers who come under its sphere of influence.


In October 1996 the large shoe factory next door to Feng Tay started to produce Nike shoes. It was a Korean owned factory called Kukje employing 5,000 workers, 80% of them women.

I visited the Kukje factory before the introduction of Nike shoes and talked with management, supervisors and workers. The factory had a very congenial atmosphere. The women said the existing daily target system was not stressful. The Korean management said it was crucial to keep the women happy, and the supervisors seemed to have very good relations with the women. I watched them for a long time without their knowledge.

However, five weeks after Nike had been introduced at Kukje I interviewed two workers in their homes. Later these interviews were consolidated by interviews with four other workers from Kukje. The impact of the change to Nike-style production had been drastic, according to the women. They were noticeably exhausted, and stated that they were not coping with the new pressure. Their Sunday holiday had been temporarily canceled, and compulsory overtime was becoming increasingly common. Further, the annual three day holiday during the Christmas period was canceled at Kukje for the first time since the factory began production.

Moreover, their normal daily production quota of 200 pairs of shoes a day had been increased to 300 for Nike. The women also claimed they were no longer free to go to the toilet, but must sign a leave slip before they go. One worker said she tried to 'hold on' all day because she did not want her name in the book as she would be ashamed. Finally, the women claimed their praying time had been cut short and now when they prayed a supervisor watched them and made them hurry.


The women also stated their supervisors were becoming increasingly angry toward them, and were abusive because the women were not working fast enough, making most women scared and nervous.

After a few months the production of Nike shoes had had a serious impact on thousands of workers at Kukje. The women I interviewed were obviously distressed by the change, and confused by the sudden transformation in the attitude of their supervisors.

I would argue that Nike is corrupting existing standards of working relations in other large factories in the Banjaran region. Nike is a threat to the community in Banjaran.


Feng Tay is the negative result of the combination of international and Indonesian capital (Taiwanese and Chinese Indonesian), a Western corporation (Nike) and a developing country's desire to industrialise quickly. Local leaders in Banjaran are powerless to resist this potent tri-partite combination. Higher level government officials are either not willing or not able to act against firms like Feng Tay.

The economic situation is such that the regions in West Java now rely heavily on international capital to create employment. The more jobs international corporations generate in areas like Banjaran, the more power they have to dictate terms and create their own culture of labour relations.

Peter Hancock is a researcher at the Centre for Development Studies, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia.
Inside Indonesia 51: Jul-Sep 1997

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