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Weaving for Survival: Life of Women in East Java

Malang, Indonesia - Siti, a middle-aged woman who makes her living as a home-based worker, was busy weaving a net around a shuttlecock, moving her two hands quickly and skilfully along with the other women workers at her house.

It was already late in the afternoon but the sun was still shining into the houses of villagers of Arjosari, a village in Malang, East Java province. The homes housed the workers in the area who help local factories to produce shuttlecocks. They looked tired but kept working to fulfil the job order for that day.

Siti is one of the home-based workers in the sub-contract production system. She used to work directly for the company, but she recently made the transition to self-employment. She invites neighbours to come and work for her. She pays the workers on a piecework basis.

She has all the necessary equipment and material to make the shuttlecocks, including a machine to shape and cut, artificial bird feathers imported from Taiwan, and paper, glue, scissors, etc.
Every space in her house is used to produce shuttlecocks, with each place having a particular activity. Looking at the limited area of the house, it serves as a mediocre factory space for about 4-6 people to work using sunlight and a small fluorescent light bulb.
“We sell the products to retail shops, which give us a better price than a company, such as a sports club, sports shop or stationery shop. If it can not be sold, the shop will give it back to us but if they can sell it, they will pay us. Also, anyone can come and buy our product here as well.”
This kind of home-based factory is all over the village. Mostly they employ women as informal labourers, who make up two-thirds of the Asian labour force and therefore contribute significantly to Asian economic growth.
In the village, children are running and playing around while the teenage girls help their parents take care of the younger kids or work with their parents or their relatives. They are all looking carefully at their hands as they tie up string or cut the feathers.
In one day, one household should finish making about fifty dozen shuttlecocks, and payment is made for the nature of each person’s work.
For instance, putting feathers around the shuttle cock will give home-based workers about 1,500 Rp (about US$ 0.15) per twelve pieces. Those who tie string around the feathers will get 600 Rp (about US$ 0.06) per dozen.
Before workers can place the feathers or string, men prepare the feathers by cutting them to the proper size.

Some men stab a hot metal rod into the shuttlecock to make holes for the feathers, while women will tie the string around the shuttlecock, quickly and skilfully.
Long hours of work will result in one household or family making about 50 dozen (600) shuttlecocks in a day.
The quality of the final pieces determines their price. For medium quality the price is about 10,000 Rp, while better quality will sell for 20,000 Rp and the highest quality is about 25,000 Rp per box (of a dozen). If they can sell all they produce, they will then calculate the costs, but it is difficult to determine the value of the invested labour.
“I don’t know how much they sell them in their shops.” Siti said when she stopped work and turned to play with her little daughter.
Sri is another self-employed person who strings badminton rackets in Arjosari village. She spoke openly about the unstable orders from the company which means the income for her family is also unstable.

“Many years ago, around 1997-1998, we didn’t get any orders at all for months, which was a tough time for us all. When we finally got a job order we just worked; we don’t care at all about the brand name of the product or what company we work for, we just continued working, that’s all,” Sri said.
There are few neighbours who work for her and she must take responsibility for the imperfectly finished products of all workers.
But she complains that sometimes, “we have been paid very poorly, and sometimes mistakes could happen. But the company always asks for the best quality, even though they don’t want to pay for it. That makes me really angry.”
Nearby, there is a rattan weaving factory where we find Marleena, owner and manager of a home-based factory. She has been trying to do the best for her workers and family by promoting her high quality of rattan weaving and paying a decent wage to the workers.

“As I am a home-based self-employer, I have to work hard and do my own marketing as well. We knew that this kind of product is made in many places in this region. But our product is very good quality; a chair or basket will last for a long time.”
“Some Thai business people also came and ordered from us for export, or showed us a model and asked to do the same weaving style at a cheaper price than their own countries’ workers could supply,” Marleena said.
At the time, Marleena’s production was exported to many places; both in Indonesia and aboard, Australia, Europe and Thailand.
Nevertheless, Siti, Sri and Marleena have to deal with all production costs and the rising cost of living. For home-based workers, there is no labour protection law. They cannot access social security, and there is no minimum wage or living wage for them.
“We have to earn more and more, so that we will be able to afford our children’s education costs which are getting higher. We also must pay when we go to the hospital when we get hurt working,” according to Siti.
Sutarti, the chairperson of the Association of Indonesian Home-based Women Workers (HWPRI) and herself a home-based worker, said, “Home-based workers are invisible to our government. We have been trying to do the best for our families and our communities to provide a better standard of life, and to earn income and take good care of our family.”
HWPRI was founded by the home-based women workers in Malang, and aims to support and enhance women workers’ capacity.
HWPRI works directly with home-based women workers in order to support them in a variety of ways. HWPRI conducts many workshops and training courses, such as technical/skills development, marketing strategy, policy and law and leadership.
“We also have been trying to empower home-based workers in many ways in order to increase their bargaining power and be able to set up their own business. Still, it is hard for home-based women workers to collect capital to set up their own business.
“It is also hard for home-based women workers to stop their daily work and come to join the training or participate in other social or political activities,” the HWPRI chairperson said.
Sisatgas Dwiko Putri, a member of the Association who now is no longer a home-based worker, talked about her past experience. “The job orders from the company sometimes were not stable. We had no orders for many months and were without income. Also, the method of production always changed.”
“For example we used to make jackets but when they started to import much cheaper goods from China, we had to change to produce another kind of garment. So the workers must constantly adapt to be able to complete new tasks all the time, so I felt insecure,” Sisatgas said.
Sisatgas started her own business about one year ago, making and selling an instant herb drinking powder called ‘Malati.’

She is now in charge of her life, and is capable of planning and managing her business and income. “I am quite happy now, I am be able to set my own price of production and better plan how to earn income for my family.”
She seems to be able not just to set her own price, but she is also building her confidence and establishing her pride. However at the moment, she still has not many customers, saying “I know that there are many more things I have to learn about doing business.”
Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic country, and one of the main products for both domestic consumption and export are headscarves, veils or hijab (for Muslim women).
“We have been working to support home-based workers (initially in Malang) so we can gain more bargaining power with the businessmen or the company. We try to find new techniques and equipment to make our product look nicer. We brainstorm and create new designs to make ours different from others so we can be paid more,” said the Association Chairperson.
In the current economic downturn, foreign-investment oriented policies seem to be the way to boost the economy by taking advantage of cheap labour.
The home-based work system leads to more and more lay-offs of formal workers, who then become informal contract labour. At the same time, the informal labour, mostly unrecognized workers, lacks bargaining power or workers’ rights. They do not have any economic, social or legal protection at all.
In addition, under the ASEAN economic blueprint, the vision of ‘one market’ pushes an ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA), while the free flow of financial and foreign investment in the region is definitely leading to more and more informal labour.
Today, China’s commodities flood not only global markets. China has already started to export Batik (traditional Javanese textile) to Indonesia, which harms local businesses and the labour force as well.
“The number of informal workers is rising significantly in ASEAN, because of the weakening of industrial relationships. The factories reduce the number of their formal workers and give the work to informal home-based workers who used to be the formal workers” said Daniel S. Stephanus, Head of the Accounting Department at Ma Chung University.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that there is a huge number of informal workers, which is an indicator of the nation’s poverty. Indonesia has a significant income gap, as shown by the 93 percent of workers who are informal, most of whom are women.
Indonesia has a population of 224 million with the percentage of people working in the informal economy increasing yearly.
According to a 2006 World Bank report, an estimated 17.8% of the population of Indonesia live below the poverty line, and 49% of the population live on less than US$2 per day.
In addition the unemployment rate is 9.75%, based on the Indonesian Central Statistics Bureau (2008). Also, the Badan Pusat Statistik (BPS-Statistic Indonesia) reports that 63.41% of those counted as poor live in provincial areas.
Hesti R. Wijaya, an Indonesian researcher, pointed out that the informal labour framework that seems to be working well in the ASEAN countries will lead to more illegal businesses employing immigrant and migrant workers in sweatshops. These workers will not receive any protection of their employment status or health care.
“We need to gain bargaining power for these workers, decent wages, and for people put more value into women’s work,” the HWPRI chairperson said.
This story was written under a 2009 Southeast Asian Press Alliance Fellowship.