May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Negotiating access

Published: Apr 07, 2015

 Suzanne Naafs

For young men in Cilegon, an industrial port city in Banten, West Java, getting access to factory employment does not only depend on education certificates, but also on their ability to confront local clientelist networks and compete for jobs with educated and skilled migrants from Indonesia and abroad. When asked about their prospects of finding employment in Cilegon, young men (aged 18-30) often mention conditions of intense competition. Their problem, they say, is not so much that there is no work. Rather, the issue they grapple with is how to ‘get access’ to work, resources and opportunities. A lot of big companies are based in Cilegon, but many local youth feel they are entering an unequal playing field in the competition for factory employment where opportunities are scarce.

Cilegon (population 392,000) is mostly known as a steel town, due to the presence of the Krakatau Steel company. This state-owned company is Indonesia’s largest steel producer and employs about 6000 permanent workers. Between the 1970s and mid-1990s, Cilegon experienced rapid economic growth based around its deep-sea ports, and heavy and petrochemical industries. Industrial expansion attracted large numbers of migrants and commuters from Banten and elsewhere in Indonesia who found salaried jobs in Cilegon’s industrial zone or opened businesses that provide goods and services to the companies and their employees. Today, Krakatau Steel’s industrial estate hosts over 125 domestic and international companies. These industries are the engine behind the local economy and in 2012 provided 18.9 percent of employment. Many young men in Cilegon hope to secure jobs and livelihoods in this overcrowded industrial sector, but they face a range of challenges in their job search that makes it difficult for them to plan ahead.

Becoming industrial workers

Andri, 27, a leader of a local youth organisation in a neighbourhood next to the industrial zone, lives in a part of Cilegon that has been included in the industrial area for a long time, but only since 2000 have the industries based themselves directly in his neighbourhood. There are factories that produce sugar, cement and chemical goods related to the ports. 

‘People here are positive about it, they hope that our people and young people especially will be hired by these companies,’ says Andri. ‘Nowadays most of our youth have completed their education until senior high school, but many do not score high enough on the tests to fulfil the recruitment standards of these companies.’

Living in and around Cilegon’s industrial estate, Andri and many other young men like him are trying to secure desirable manufacturing jobs or business contracts as suppliers to the heavy and petrochemical industries. The industries are typically considered to be a male domain, requiring a combination of physical strength and technological knowhow. In addition to jobs in the transportation and construction sectors, the ports and steel industries are one of the most obvious places for young men to look for work and money. 

Young men’s ambitions are usually oriented towards becoming a permanent worker in the industrial zone. They consider this kind of job a lot more desirable than the other options available to them, such as insecure outsourcing work as security guards, office boys, in the cleaning service, or a future in the informal economy linked to the industrial estate. Many families from working and middle class backgrounds, therefore, invest in technical training for their sons hoping they will get secure jobs as employees in Krakatau Steel-Posco and other companies. The uniform, salary and other benefits such as pensions and health care that come with these jobs signal improved social status and prosperity.

Not all young men consider factory employment an endpoint. Many hope this line of work will eventually open up other opportunities. Some try to save enough money to continue their education. Others intend to use their inside knowledge of the industrial zone to establish the contacts and trust with bigger companies, which would allow them to start their own business as a local subcontractor or supplier. However, these ambitions are difficult to realise in a context where rapid industrial expansion has not generated sufficient jobs for Cilegon’s growing population of educated youth. 

Competition for jobs

As much as young men like Andri are oriented towards job opportunities in Cilegon’s industrial estate, their experiences suggest that they enter a competitive and relatively hostile work environment. The boom in manufacturing industries has largely collapsed since the 1997 Asian financial crisis. No longer protected by state subsidies and monopolies, since the 2000s Krakatau Steel and other companies in Cilegon have been under much more pressure to attract foreign investment and compete in the global economy. While many young men continue to aspire to secure stable jobs in the steel industries, state-owned companies like Krakatau Steel no longer provide the same guarantees for a lifelong career as they did for their parents’ generation.

Young men’s work ambitions are further undermined by underemployment and jobless growth in manufacturing industries, which have characterised Indonesia’s economic recovery in the 2000s. According to statistics from the Ministry of Youth and Sports, youth unemployment rates in Banten amounted to 21 percent in 2007, compared to a national average of 15 percent. Today, the number of young graduates exceeds the jobs available at their education level. Many are likely to end up in jobs below their expectations and education level. They also accept jobs that were previously done by those with lower qualifications. Whereas in the 1980s, young people with junior high school diplomas would be hired for jobs as operators in the industries, these days the same job requires a senior high  school certificate. A recruitment manager from a steel producing company confirms: ‘Nowadays, it is difficult for senior high school graduates. Many end up in outsourcing jobs’. 

Keeping up with education demands

The minimum requirement for outsourcing jobs and production jobs as operators or welders is a senior high school certificate. Many companies prefer ‘fresh graduates’; young men who are not yet married and have completed their education less than five years ago. Such criteria set age limits that leave only a small window of opportunity for young men to enter operator jobs when they are in their early to mid-twenties. These entry-level jobs usually involve a one-year training period in the company with good prospects (but no guarantees) of becoming an employee. Applicants need to submit English language scores, academic rankings and pass a psychological test, job test and interview. 

Operating a mobile phone counter can be an alternative to a job in the industries - Suzanne Naafs

Local youth with diplomas from vocational-high schools, who are repeatedly told by company managers that their credentials from regional institutes lack purchase, often feel proud and reassured when they are accepted for a company traineeship. This can be seen, for example, from their Facebook updates. Some young men who work in the industrial zone regularly post photos of themselves in uniform at their workplace. Their status updates announce that they are ‘on the way to KS-Posco’, and highlight photos of them working ‘in the blast furnace’ or taking a lunch break with co-workers. Having passed the elaborate recruitment process, they are part of the lucky few who have gained access. Regardless of the actual working conditions on the factory floor, the wider community considers them skilled and educated persons. In the eyes of many parents this employment status also makes these young men more eligible as future husbands.

While these young men take pride in their jobs and their tight-knit community of co-workers, for less successful local youth their pathways into industrial work can be frustrating. Faced with difficult access to employment in the industries, some young men opt for alternative work in trade, construction or transportation. Agus, 24, who holds a vocational high-school diploma in machinery, says: ‘After graduation I applied for many factory jobs, but it was really difficult, I haven’t been able to get a job’. Agus realises he is now past companies’ age limits and probably no longer matches the fresh graduate profile that many companies are looking for. ‘So I changed my focus, I opened a mobile phone counter instead. ’Despite the slim chances of obtaining factory employment or related work in Cilegon’s ports, however, many young men living near the industrial estate persevere in their orientation towards the industries. ‘We continue to hope that we find work in the industries’, says one local youth. ‘The evidence is lacking, but my neighbourhood is already part of the industrial zone, so there aren’t many alternatives’.

Locals and newcomers

Besides the strict age limits and academic criteria, the question of how to ‘get access’ involves other issues as well. As Cilegon’s economy becomes saturated with locals as well as newcomers attracted by the city’s industrial expansion, the competition for jobs, business contracts and other ‘projects’ in the ports and industrial estate becomes more intense. In deciding who gets access to what, social divisions between ‘locals’ and ‘newcomers’ become important as people make claims about their rights to jobs and opportunities.

The limited recruitment of ‘local people’ for mid-level and higher rank positions is a longstanding source of resentment. Many locals, youth and adults alike, feel they are losing out in the competition for industrial employment to skilled and better-educated migrants from other parts of Indonesia and abroad, including a recent influx of South Korean steel workers. Foreign and domestic migrants and commuters with degrees from well-known universities in Jakarta or Bandung often obtain positions as managers, while local people who have lived in Cilegon for several generations end up in lower-ranked jobs as foremen, operators or outsourced labourers.

Tensions between locals and migrants usually stay relatively unmarked, as long as the migrants value Banten’s culture and Islamic identity. Some of the more conservative Islamic leaders in the region, acting as cultural gatekeepers between the industries and local society, are worried about the presence of non-Muslim newcomers. They anticipate that their arrival and the influence of a more cosmopolitan urban culture will threaten Islamic values. In the competition for work and business contracts in the industrial zone, such arguments about people’s background and origins become amplified and the distinction between ‘locals versus newcomers’ hardens.

Negotiating access

Although the majority of Cilegon’s citizens support the overall project of industrial development in their region, relations between the industries and surrounding community are complex. Local grievances about capital flight and unequal access to jobs became important motivations for the campaign for Cilegon to become an autonomous municipality in 1999, and Banten an independent province in 2000. Since then, Cilegon’s local government, business elites and NGOs have targeted the industries with campaigns to limit insecure outsourcing work in the zone. They also lobby for preferential treatment of ‘locals’ in companies’ recruitment procedures and business contracts.

Big companies in Cilegon are, thus, under increasing pressure to manage relations with the local society and to accommodate young graduates from Banten. In recent years, some of these companies have made efforts to make their recruitment process more transparent. Companies like Krakatau Steel have also set up training programs for local youth under 22 who are exclusively recruited from the region’s top vocational-high schools. With an intake of around 120-150 vocational school graduates per year, the programs offer young men valuable on-the-job training and, depending on the company’s needs, future employment. Yet, most company managers have little patience for political demands to use quota to increase recruitment of local workers. As Pak Ali, a recruitment manager of a plastic producing company in Cilegon, comments: ‘No, I don’t think that the education criteria are set too high. Only if two candidates have the same test score and one is from Banten and the other one from elsewhere, then we take the one from Banten.’

Many young men are positive about local government attempts to put pressure on the industries. They feel their government should address problems of labour recruitment in the industrial zone and negotiate a fairer deal for them. Ibnu, 24, a junior high school graduate who lives with his parents, hopes that Cilegon’s mayor and other politicians will make an effort to create more job opportunities. ‘Work is important. Every youth wants to lead a certain lifestyle, wants to own equipment such as a TV and mobile phone and a motorcycle. If I had a job, I could focus on starting a family.’ He explains a stable income is considered a prerequisite for marriage. ‘But do I have to stay like this all the time, unmarried and without a stable job?’

Often lacking the strong education background required to compete in the regional economy, young men like Ibnu want the local government to create jobs, address youth underemployment, and reduce economic inequality. Yet, many feel the local government is not doing enough. As one local high-school graduate expressed: ‘The mayor only creates jobs for his own circle of friends and relatives, people of a higher class and education background than me’. Firman, 22, a first year university student living in the industrial zone, says: ‘Government development plans are not always clear and there are a lot of problems with corruption here.’ Firman explains that the human resource level of the people in his neighbourhood is not very high. ‘Few young people continue on to university. Most youth want to go to school, find work and that’s it. Low human resources combined with a powerful political regime often means that, in the end, our problems are never really solved.’

Despite their investments in vocational training as a pathway into industrial employment, young men’s ambitions to access jobs and income opportunities in the industrial zone are difficult to realise. Caught between global competitive pressures and regional problems of youth underemployment and clientelism, young men have to be creative and entrepreneurial as they try to juggle work ambitions with forging the personal networks that will help them access jobs and income opportunities in the industrial zone.

Suzanne Naafs ( is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia. She conducted research on the employment prospects and lifestyles of youth in Cilegon as part of her doctoral research at the Institute of Social Studies and postdoctoral research at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 120: Apr-Jun 2015{jcomments on}

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.