Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Children at work

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Officially, 2.4 million Indonesian children work in factories or on the streets, instead of being at school. Unofficially, the number could be 10 million. SHARON BESSELL talks with some working children, and asks what is being done.

Sharon Bessel

The glass-fronted offices and luxurious shopping plazas of central Jakarta are monuments to the growth of a class that has reaped the benefits of export-led development. Behind this shining facade of wealth and 'development' is another world: the streets, the traditional markets and the bus and train stations; the poor villages where the future looks grim and the city draws people away; the plantations and the factories where cheap labour means additional profit. These are many faces of the Indonesia that has not shared equally in development and is often hidden from the public glare. This is the world inhabited by Indonesia's many working children.

Recent years have witnessed a growing interest in child labour around the world. Media exposes have focussed on instances of the most horrifying abuse. Images of small children chained to machines and carpet looms have shocked us via our television screens. Some groups, primarily in developed countries, have advocated the boycott of goods made by children. Some governments and politicians, most notably the United States, have discussed introducing legislation to ban the importation of goods produced by child's labour. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has launched its International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in a number of countries, including Indonesia. It aims to protect working children from the worst abuses in the short and medium term, and to eliminate child labour in the long term.

On the positive side, these developments have put the issue of child labour on public and political agendas. They have focussed over-due attention on an issue often overlooked in discussion and campaigns on labour standards, human rights and development. IPEC has played an important role. On the negative side, they have often ignored or distorted the reality of working children's lives. Calls for boycotts and sanctions threaten children's livelihoods, often without providing, or even considering, alternatives.

So what of child labour in Indonesia? Does it exist and if so, why? Are children exploited? What is being done?

Compelled to work

First, child labour certainly does exist in Indonesia, although the government, extremely sensitive to the issue, prefers the termanak yang terpaksa bekerja: children compelled to work. The word compelled refers to economic necessity. According to official statistics, some 2.4 million children are engaged in work. Other sources estimate the real figure could be as high as 10 million. While some Indonesian children work under similar conditions to their counterparts elsewhere in the world, or child labour also has specific characteristics in Indonesia.

On the positive side, we do not see the gross and extreme forms of abuse not uncommon in other parts of the world. Slave and bonded labour, as it manifests itself in South Asia for example, is not a feature of Indonesian children's work. Forced labour is, however, an under-investigated issue. We know that young boys are forced to work for several months at a time on the fishing platforms (jermals) of North Sumatra. These children live and work in appalling conditions. They must remain on the platform for up to three months at a time, have an inadequate diet and face physical, verbal and sexual abuse from older fishermen. Death by drowning is a constant danger for these children, the majority of whom have never learned to swim. The plight of children of the jermals has been the subject of several media exposes in recent years. Local non-government organisations (NGOs) are now attempting to end this highly exploitative form of children's employment.

We also know that in some areas, such as poor fishing villages and tobacco producing regions, the people are wholly dependent on one form of employment and often only one employer. Families are often caught in a cycle of debt that demands not only their own labour but that of their children. This cycle of debt, work, repayment and more debt is not akin to the life-long debt bondage found in South Asia and elsewhere, where the result is virtual enslavement. But it does keep families poor and dependent.


For the vast majority of Indonesian working children, their work is neither forced nor a form of debt repayment, but a consequence of a complex range of social and economic factors. As in all countries, the main reason for children entering the workforce prematurely is poverty. Much has been made of the impressive achievements in poverty reduction since the early 1970s. Only 15% of the population lived below the official poverty line in 1990, as compared with 40% in 1976. It should be said that the poverty line is very low, guaranteeing little more than basic sustenance. Moreover, a large percentage of the population live just above this line. While the percentage of the population defined as living in poverty has declined dramatically, in actual numbers the figure remains very high at just over 27 million in 1990. The continued poverty of this large group, together with those not defined as living below the poverty line but nevertheless living in extremely poor circumstances, provide a significant pool of potential child labourers.

For many children, work, either combined with school or as a replacement, is the only real option. In Jakarta recently I spoke with the mother of a three year old girl. Both mother and child work for up to 12 hours a day and then sleep in the dusty confines of a traditional vegetable market. Having migrated from the countryside in search of a better life after the death of her husband, this woman earns only Rp 2,000 per day (about A$1.25). She had little choice but to have her youngest daughter and two older children contribute to the family economy. 'Would you like to send your children to school?', I asked with what later seemed to be ridiculous naivety. 'I need their help', came the reply, 'and who would pay?'. While official school fees have been abolished, so- called 'voluntary' fees are set by, and must be paid to, individual schools. Uniforms, shoes, textbooks, and transport fares are all additional costs that make formal schooling prohibitive for many poor families.

There has been an impressive increase in access to schooling. UNICEF figures show well over 90% of Indonesian children now enter primary school. Nevertheless, drop-out rates remain a significant problem. In 1990 only 79% of children completed 6 years of primary school, and only 55% of primary school graduates continued to junior secondary school. Irrelevant curriculums, poorly trained teachers - particularly in remote and poor areas - and inaccessibility in some remote regions all contribute to the decision of parents, or children themselves, to drop out of school. Children who live and work on the streets, and many who have migrated to the big cities alone or with their families, do not have a permanent address and therefore cannot obtain an identity card. Consequently, the formal schooling system is completely closed to them.

Would children prefer to work or go to school? Well, it depends. I put this question to a group of young girls aged 13 and 14 who work in pesticide factories on the industrial fringe of Jakarta. All said that having worked in a factory for at least several months, they now saw school as a preferable, but not a possible, option. One 14-year old girl explained, 'my parents are dead, I have to support myself, how can I go to school when I must work?'. For others, the family economy left little option but to work. A large number send at least part of their pay packet home. While work is difficult, the hours long and the pay low, it is a way of meeting new friends. It brings a degree of independence for girls who want to live their own lives. For others, particularly the fiercely independent children who earn their living on the streets, school offers little. The idea of returning to a highly structured system that demands much discipline often does not appeal.

Factory children

Clearly, child labour exists in Indonesia, despite the fact that it has long been neglected within and outside the country. While interest in the nation's working children is only now increasing, a small number of NGOs have been working with, and on behalf of, these children for some years. It is from them that we know something of children's working and living conditions. It seems many are exploited and exposed to hazardous conditions in their place of work.

Factory children, usually girls aged between twelve and fourteen years, routinely work eight to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. In the tobacco industry of Jember children work up to thirteen hours a day during the busy season, receiving well below minimum wages. In Maluku boys as young as nine engage in the hazardous occupation of deep-sea pearl diving. Child scavengers at Bantar Gebung, the major dump site servicing Jakarta, work and live in conditions that expose them to accidents, disease and long-term health problems.

One group of working children to receive very little attention are the pembantu, or domestic servants. A recent study, the first of its kind in Indonesia, indicated that as many as 1.5 million children, usually girls, are employed as pembantu. Earning as little as Rp 20,000 to Rp 50,000 (A$12.50 to A$31.25) a month, they are on call virtually 24 hours a day. Isolated from their families and often far from home, they are extremely vulnerable not only to exploitation but to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.

The streets, usually busy and polluted, are often dangerous places for children to work. Harassment and violence from officialdom is a constant threat. Nothing illustrates these dangers as clearly as the twelve-year old boy, who has lived and worked on the streets since the age of nine, selling water and lollies at a busy train station in Jakarta. One day he spotted the policeman who had abused him and confiscated his wares many times in the past. Running away to avoid arrest, or at least trouble, he slipped and fell under oncoming traffic that severed his leg above the knee. He has nowhere to go for care and comfort - the streets are his only home - and earning a living will now be more difficult than ever.

Finally, what is being done to assist these children? At a non- government level, quite a bit. The establishment of the ILO's IPEC (mentioned earlier) has been a major step in putting the issue of child labour on the agenda in Indonesia. IPEC has created considerable awareness of the problem, as well as providing funding and training for NGOs. As a result, the number of NGOs operating in this area has grown significantly in recent years. NGOs play a vital role in advocacy and awareness raising, and in providing direct services, such as education, vocational training, and drop- in centres.

Eliminate or protect?

In Indonesia, as elsewhere in the world, there is some debate as to whether the objective should be the elimination of all forms of child labour primarily through prohibition, or the protection of working children through empowerment, legislation and enforcement. There is widespread agreement that regardless of the approach adopted, the phenomenon will continue to be a fact of life for at least the next fifteen or twenty years. This view is probably realistic but is not an excuse for inaction. The most effective and realistic approach is to recognise the differences between various forms of child labour and respond accordingly.

Some forms of work are far too hazardous for children: scavenging, the jermals, work with chemicals or pesticides (in factories or in the fields), work with dangerous machinery and domestic service are just a few examples. For hazardous work, and forms of work that are simply too heavy for children, the objective should be elimination.

For non-hazardous work, a more realistic approach is regulation: that is to allow children to work under protected conditions, for limited hours and reasonable wages. Such work must be supplemented with relevant and quality education. This approach is indeed embodied in the 1987 Ministerial Regulation, now under review. But while it can be praised for adopting a realistic approach, enforcement was inadequate to the point of virtual non-existence. Not one employer has been charged with violating the regulation. This certainly casts doubt over the extent of political will, as does the lack of coordination within and between relevant government departments.

While NGO efforts to support and assist working children are on the increase, official action remains limited. The services provided by NGOs are vital, but there is also an urgent need for working children to be accorded the priority they deserve within policy. Concrete and sustained action is necessary to end exploitative and hazardous work, while children who do continue to work must be guaranteed protection in reality as well as on paper. At present, children are an extremely vulnerable section of the workforce who continue to toil in conditions that offer little protection.

Sharon Bessell teaches in the Politics Department at Monash University, Melbourne. She expresses her thanks to Sekretariat Anak Merdeka Indonesia (SAMIN), KOMPAK, Institut Sosial Jakarta and Yayasan Kesejahteraan Anak Indonesia for information used in this article.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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