Globalization, Sweatshops, and Indonesian Women Workers

By Becky Ellis

All around the world, especially the first world, governments and corporations sing 
the praises of globalization. New trade agreements and governmental pacts seem 
to be declared constantly, each one aimed at increasing the profits for global 

All of these agreements and pacts are at the expense of human rights, the 
environment, workers rights, democracy, and women's rights. People around the 
world are growing more and more angry at the effects of globalization as can be 
seen by the mass demonstrations in Seattle in November of 1999. 

Women all over the world have suffered the most from globalization. In the 
advanced capitalist countries, vicious cuts to child care, women's shelters, social 
assistance, and health care have drastically impacted upon the lives of women. 
Throughout the world, women and their children make up about 80% of the 
world's poor. 

Indonesia is a country that has been drastically affected by global capitalism. 
It is a country that for thirty years was run by the US-backed dictator Suharto, 
who was forced to quit due to militant mass action. Currently, Indonesia is one 
of the poorest countries in the world after the meltdown of its economy in 

The effects of poverty and globalization are clear in Indonesia-especially on 
the lives of women workers. In Indonesia, as in many countries throughout the 
world, corporations  have set up free-trade zones where sweatshops operate 
with little regard for human rights. The following article details the conditions 
for women working in these sweatshops in Indonesia.

Indonesian women are concentrated in manufacturing, agriculture, trades 
and services, and make up 70-80% of the textile and garment industry. 
Official government policy holds that women are already emancipated. 
However, women do not have full status in society until they are married, 
and it is state policy that marriage and motherhood are the only acceptable 
roles for women. The ideal woman worker, according to a well-known saying 
in Indonesia, is "takut dan malu" or "fearful and shy". 

Because of a large number of rural families that have been pushed off their 
land by the military to make way for private developments, and a sharp 
downturn in available work in agriculture, young rural women flock to the 
cities seeking  jobs. 

These women are considered the best workers and are hired by the large 
factories for their manual dexterity, supposed tolerance for monotonous 
tasks and greater obedience than women from urban areas. The majority 
of women factory workers in Indonesia are under 25 years old, single and 
poorly educated. 


Textile and garment industry workers receive very low wages. The minimum 
wage is Rp5200 (US$2) per day. The government estimates that the 
minimum daily amount required to meet basic needs is Rp6200, but this 
figure is based on the lowest of living standards. 

Many employers do not pay even the minimum wage, and women workers 
are paid less than the men in most industries. 

A 1989 study of a range of factories in north Jakarta found that 72.55% of 
workers were paid below the minimum wage. Many companies get away 
with this by bribing government officials. It has been estimated that 2-10% 
of production costs is paid in wages, while 30% is paid in bribes. 

Women's usual working conditions include long hours, abusive environments, 
unhealthy conditions and restrictions on the right to organize. 

A recent study at a Bandung textile and garment factory found that the 
workers worked 12-14 hours each day. Another study of a Nike factory in 
Java found that women workers were permitted to have only two days off
a month. In many factories, overtime is compulsory and paid erratically. 

By law, workers are entitled to sick, religious, holiday, menstrual and 
pregnancy leave. In reality, they are rarely permitted to take any leave, 
and those who persist in doing so are fired. According to reports on Nike 
factories in Java, workers who are too ill to work are required to spend the 
day resting in the factory's mosque. 

Workers often have money deducted from their wages for things such as 
fabric flaws and broken needles. At a shrimp paste factory in Java, the
 workers have to pay Rp50 for the "privilege" of washing the smell of 
shrimp paste off their hands. 

Verbal, physical and sexual abuse are commonplace. A former supervisor 
at a Nike factory reported that he was trained to yell "Fuck you" and "Move, 
hurry, you stupid bitch" at the women workers. 

Other reports of abuse include supervisors at a shoe factory hitting women 
workers on their behinds with the out-soles of shoes when they slowed, 
workers being punished at many factories by being made to run laps around 
the building, and at several Nike factories, women workers being forced by 
supervisors to run between their various work sites. 

Industrial accidents are also commonplace. A company nurse told 
researchers that he regularly threw fingers out in the trash heap. In one 
factory, a 22-year-old woman was scalped when her hair caught on a 
conveyor belt. Workers rarely receive compensation, and when they do, it 
does not cover medical expenses. 


The workers' low wages means that they also live in very poor conditions. 
Some factories provide accommodation for their workers, usually housing 
compounds consisting of large brick buildings which are severely 
overcrowded. At one Nike housing compound, each room houses 12 women. 
Each room contains six bunk beds and virtually no walking space. 

It is common for workers' quarters to have only one or two toilets for 50 to 
100 residents. Water is scarce in these quarters, and workers are often forced 
to buy expensive bottled water. A study of women workers in Malang found 
that 68% had no washing facilities or running water at home. 

Not surprisingly, the health of women workers is generally very poor. 
Ailments commonly reported by women textile workers include iron 
deficiency anemia, depression, chronic tinnitus, occupational bronchitis, 
menstrual disorders, muscle strain disorders and hearing loss. 

One survey estimated that 40.3% of women workers in Jakarta have iron 
deficiency anemia, 30% are infected with intestinal parasites and 88% 
are malnourished. 

There is also mounting evidence that life-threatening disorders are being 
contracted at work. One study at a textile factory in Bandung revealed 
that some of the dye workers had bladder cancer, which has been linked 
to the carcinogens present in locally used dyestuffs. 

Women have been at the forefront of struggles for workers' rights in 
Indonesia. Strikes in all industries have increased substantially over the 
past decade (in 1994, there were 1130 strikes), and there are numerous 
examples of the integral role of women in these protests. 

Workers who take up the struggle are regularly intimidated, harassed and 
abused by the military, and are often sacked. In 1993, a woman named 
Marsinah who organised a strike at her textile factory was found floating, 
murdered, in a river near the factory. 

In 1998, during the mass mobilizations, the Indonesian "government" 
finally made trade unions legal. Many women have joined the fight for 
worker's rights. One of the most notable feminists and trade union activists 
in Indonesia is Dita Sari. Sari is a former political prisoner who is now the 
chairperson of the Indonesian Popular Front for Labour Struggle. Many 
women have also joined the struggle for revolutionary change in Indonesia.
International solidarity with women who work in sweatshops and in labour 
struggles is imperative. Throughout North America, a campaign against 
sweatshops has been growing as part of a larger movement against 
globalization. Through international solidarity, women's and workers' 
rights will win over the interests of private greed.

(Becky Ellis is a marxist feminist and a member of the Resistance Collective).

Links to other sites on the Web

Click HERE to return to RESIST!

This page hosted by Yahoo! GeoCities Get your own Free Home Page

Hosting by WebRing.