Oct 01, 2023 Last Updated 8:24 AM, Sep 13, 2023

Whatever it takes

Michele Ford

In June last year, in Tanjung Pinang, I interviewed a Betawi woman a long way from her native Jakarta. Tanjung Pinang is a large town on the Indonesian island of Bintan, near Singapore. Once the administrative capital of the region, it is now just another frontier port economy largely dependent on smuggling and sex tourism. This woman, whom I will call Ibu Betawi, looked considerably older than her thirty-five years. She was part of a special sort of smuggling operation - the illegal export of labour to Malaysia. Unlike some of her compatriots, who are dumped off the Malaysian shore in the dead of night, she had a valid work permit - albeit issued on the basis of false papers, which her 'agent' had obtained by bribing local officials. Once in Malaysia as a domestic worker, there would be no guarantees for her well-being from the Malay businessman who organised her placement in return for her first three months' wages.

Ibu Betawiwas between a rock and a hard place. Unlike another of the potential migrant workers I spoke to in Tanjung Pinang, she was no starry-eyed, teenaged villager hoping to see the world. After her husband's death five years ago, she worked in a Korean-run export garment factory in Greater Jakarta, until her eyesight had deteriorated to the point where she could no longer meet factory production targets. When the small business she then started failed, she left her daughter with relatives and looked for work further afield. She had heard the stories about the misfortunes of women working abroad, but she was prepared to do whatever it takes (nekad), determined to earn an honest (halal) income for herself and her daughter.

Ibu Betawi's experience straddles two very visible modes of Indonesian working-class work: the factory production of export goods, and the export of labour itself. Both modes contribute much to the Indonesian economy. In 1999, light manufacturing (food, beverages and tobacco, textiles, leather products and footwear) earned over US$17 billion, or 15.6% of Indonesia's GDP. The sector produces mainly for export and employs over two million workers. In the same year, 302,791 women and 124,828 men were officially placed as overseas migrant workers. Many more go unofficially. Remittances from official overseas female migrant workers alone totalled some US$ 300 million in 1999. The two modes are also symbolically significant, because they lie at the forefront of Indonesia's engagement with the global economy. Ibu Betawi's story illustrates some of the human costs of a Third World economy's attempts to export its way out of trouble.

When I asked about her factory experiences, Ibu Betawi told me stories of unreasonable targets, hard work, forced overtime, low wages, and of having no time to spend with her daughter or her friends. These are common complaints, well documented by academics and non-government organisation (NGO) activists over the last two decades. They have become even more significant since the Asian economic crisis added to the woes of Indonesia's factory workers.

Indonesian manufacturing was badly affected by the crisis. But while many domestically oriented enterprises were forced to close, not all manufacturers suffered. In fact, demand for export products from large factories actually grew. Research done by two labour-oriented NGOs, Akatiga and LIPS, shows that the public acceptance of 'hard times' brought with it the opportunity to restructure. This opportunity was used both by struggling companies and those that were doing quite well. Companies downsized, diversified, and increased their exposure to export markets. They sacked trainees and daily workers first, in order to reduce their severance pay liabilities. The threat of dismissal was also increasingly used as a disciplinary measure for those still employed. A significant proportion of the workforce was casualised. Factory management compensated for the decline in the military's overt role in controlling the industrial workforce by replacing them with local thugs (preman), who operated in workers' communities and at the factory gates.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), up to 1,333,345 Indonesian industrial workers were dismissed in 1998 alone, with workers in the textile and footwear industries among the hardest hit. According to industry association estimates, 50% of the footwear and non-garment textile workforce was retrenched at the height of the crisis. Unemployed factory workers were forced to return to their villages (the agricultural sector grew for the first time in many years after Indonesia's economy collapsed) or into the urban informal sector.

Factory workers who did not lose their jobs also faced severe economic difficulties. Although nominal wages increased 15-20% in 1997-98, the consumer price index almost doubled in that time. The purchasing power of the minimum wage has been a major concern. In 1999, calculations of worker activists put a living wage at Rp 600,000 (about AU$ 120) in Jakarta and Bandung and Rp 469,000 in Surabaya. At the time, the regional minimum monthly wages were only Rp 230,000, Rp 228,000 and Rp 182,000 respectively. Shortfalls are met by compromising health and nutrition. As indicated by Ibu Betawi, workers work long hours to earn the overtime necessary for food, shelter and clothing. While some workers scrimp to send money to their families, others are actually subsidised by food sent from the villages.


As job opportunities shrank, the number of Indonesians looking for work overseas increased. According to a Kompas report in late 1998, demand for legal female migrant worker placements had jumped 35 per cent since the onset of the crisis. The crisis had a direct effect on the employment opportunities in many of the Asian countries where Indonesians work. In Malaysia - the Asian country receiving most Indonesian migrant workers - hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were rounded up and repatriated in order to protect Malaysian nationals from the effects of the crisis.

Despite repatriation drives in Malaysia and some other Asian countries, almost half a million Indonesians were placed by government-registered companies in the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, Europe and North America in 2000. 71.39% of 'legal' migrant workers sent overseas between January 1999 and June 2001 were women. Malaysia, where in 1998 legal entrants made up only about one-third of all labour migration, continues to be the destination for the largest number of Indonesia's unofficial migrant workers. In mid-2001, 600,000 illegal migrants were detained in Malaysia. About the same time, it was estimated that 60,000 illegal migrants were working in Middle Eastern countries excluding Saudi Arabia - the major destination for Indonesian migrant workers in the region. These figures show how far the labouring poor will go to find work.

While Ibu Betawi did not turn to domestic work in Malaysia as a direct result of the crisis, her experiences were certainly influenced by increasing pressures in the factory and contracting opportunities outside it. Her decision to work overseas, her determination and optimism, are an important part of the story of working class lives that is not often told. Indonesians working in the factories and overseas face many difficulties, but they are not powerless. Ibu Betawi's self-confessed recklessness in approaching an illegal labour migration agent was a way to take control of her life, to escape the grind of factory work and to make her dead husband's family take some responsibility for her daughter's wellbeing. For others, it might be the decision to leave the house without permission, to arrive late at a factory, to take extra time for prayers or to steal a Nike shoe, an Adidas cap or an electronic component.

Despite the disincentives for activism that job insecurity brings, some workers make the decision to attend an education session or a strike meeting. On a collective level, many factory workers have continued to protest and organise in the post-Suharto era. Dramatic changes in Indonesia's legal framework after President Habibie ratified ILO Convention No 87 on the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in June 1998 made trade union registration much easier. Ongoing opposition to trade unionism from business and significant sections of the bureaucracy has not prevented new unions from becoming part of Indonesia's official industrial relations system. SBSI, for example, is the major trade union alternative to the official SPSI in the 1990s. Others include informal workers' groups, some pre-New Order unions, and a host of new factory- and regionally-based unions. Although it is doubtful how effective many of these new unions are, their very presence is a significant achievement, considering Indonesia's long history of repression and the subsequent economic crisis.

For migrant workers, an organised collective response is more difficult. They don't work in factories employing thousands of people, but alone in their employers' homes. Nevertheless, with the support of a range of NGOs - many of which are associated with the Consortium for the Defence of Indonesian Migrant Workers (Kopbumi) - migrant workers have organised protests and campaigns in Indonesia and abroad.

Ibu Betawi may or may not be lucky in Malaysia. She might find herself with an understanding boss in conditions far better than those of domestic workers in Jakarta, or she might be deported, or raped or even killed. She has no desire to worry about what might or might not happen to her. Her sights are firmly set. She'll do whatever it takes.

Michele Ford (mford_mul@hotmail.com) is writing a PhD on Indonesian labour at Wollongong University, Australia.

Inside Indonesia 69: Jan - Mar 2002

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