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Labouring for development

Labouring for development
Published: Jul 02, 2012

Michele Ford

Working-class women bear the brunt in an unequal society
Michele Ford

Their labour force participation rate may still lag well behind that of Indonesian men, but Indonesian women have increasingly made the shift from traditional forms of economic activity to waged work. At a time when the green revolution and increased mechanisation of wet rice agriculture had eliminated many of the tasks traditionally undertaken by rural women, foreign investors began establishing the factories that drew a generation of young women away from the villages into the urban industrial workforce for the first time. Although many working-class women are engaged in informal sector activities like petty trade, millions now occupy low-skilled positions in the light manufacturing industries – particularly in garments and footwear, the industries that have underpinned Indonesia’s foray into export-oriented industrialisation.

Changes in the economy as a result of the subsequent growth of tertiary industries also created new white-collar opportunities for women, who are now well represented in professional and technical occupations. Overall, in 2010, women comprised around 36 per cent of Indonesia’s workforce of almost 113 million. The percentage was much higher among the university educated in paid employment, where women account for over 46 per cent.

The experiences of working class and middle class women could not be more different. Indonesian working women of all classes and levels of education continue to struggle against the glass ceiling. But while wealthy and even lower middle-class working women can achieve a work-life balance almost unheard of in countries like Australia, the industrial poor pay dearly for their economic independence, working long hours in difficult working conditions, only to come home to do their second (or third) shift.

Outsourcing the double burden

Wealthier working women benefit immensely from the vast inequalities that continue to beset Indonesia. In effect, it is this inequality that allows those who work outside the home to formally take responsibility for the management of the household but without having to come home to the second shift.

The ability to employ a domestic worker and delegate household tasks makes it possible for these women to avoid the repeated arguments over housework that so often beset two-income households in countries with lower wage differentials. Although Indonesian men have a good reputation for their willingness to contribute to childcare, the home very much remains the responsibility of their wives. But live-in help makes the distribution of housework a moot point. Middle-class women have no need to force conversations with their husbands about who should be putting out the rubbish or doing the dishes. When a household ‘helper’ – or two, or three – takes care of the household chores and looks after the children, both parents have plenty of time for relaxation or other activities.

The very same entrenched social inequalities mean that working-class women have a very different experience of the work–life balance. Without the luxury of a substitute wife, poorer working women have to rely on extended family and neighbours for childcare and must complete the bulk of household tasks before they go to work or upon their return home. If they are lucky, they might have a husband who helps out. But such is the pressure of the double shift in a context where working days regularly extend to 12 hours or more that many Indonesian couples who migrate to the cities for work leave their children with grandparents or other members of their extended family, visiting only irregularly outside the holiday period that surrounds the celebrations at the end of the fasting month. Given the subsistence level of wages in Indonesian factories, they often have little money to send home, relying instead on their parents or other relatives to provide for their children.

A guilty silence?

At the very bottom of the food chain are the women who keep the houses of others, be those houses in Indonesia or overseas. Working hidden from the public gaze, these women have even fewer guarantees of their safety and well-being than women labouring in the factories. It is not uncommon for domestic workers to be on call 24 hours seven days a week. They are not only expected to do set tasks like the cooking and cleaning, but to respond to their employers’ every whim. In the worst of cases, they might be imprisoned, sexually exploited, maimed or even killed.

The terrible situations experienced by some Indonesian women working overseas as domestic helpers are well-publicised, leading to regular expressions of public indignation and occasionally new attempts to better regulate their working conditions. Much less public energy, however, is expended on the plight of domestic workers in Indonesia itself. In part, the argument goes, this is because domestic workers suffer less in familiar surroundings, among their own people. Yet many domestic workers employed by other Indonesians not only travel far from home, and rely on their employer’s goodwill for a return ticket, but are subject to the same kind of indignities that beset their sisters overseas.

Overseas domestic workers play Russian roulette when they decide to go abroad. They might strike it lucky, and get a fair employer, but there is also a chance that they’ll end up deeply scarred or even dead. But if things works out, a sojourn overseas at least offers some hope of socio-economic advancement – if not for themselves, then for their children, whose schooling is paid for from their mother’s hard-earned remittances. By contrast, domestic workers employed in Indonesia earn a pittance, which condemns them to a life of servitude and their children to a life of poverty.

Why, then, are the very public campaigns about overseas domestic workers not matched by campaigns for the rights of those who keep Indonesia’s middle-class households ticking over? Is it because the employment of ‘helpers’ in Indonesia presents a far more complicated picture to its middle classes, who themselves benefit from others’ domestic labour, than that of Indonesian domestic workers abroad? Or are they truly blind to the plight of the women who raise their children and run their homes? The answer is probably somewhere in between. But until ‘helpers’ are legally recognised as workers with rights and responsibilities, and not dependents who should be grateful for being taken in, Indonesia’s burgeoning middle classes will continue to contribute to a devastating cycle of exploitation, which doesn’t sit well with Indonesia’s proudly-held middle income status.

Michele Ford (michele.ford@sydney.edu.au) teaches Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. She is co-editor (with Lyn Parker) of Women and Work in Indonesia (Routledge 2008).

Inside Indonesia 109: Jul-Sep 2012

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