Worker resistance takes different forms in export zones

Posted: February 14, 2011 in Indonesia
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The factories that make popular consumer gadgets including computer components, smartphones and video game consoles mostly employ young single women. This remains true all across Asia.
Amongst factory owners, the conventional wisdom is that women more suitable because they have ‘smaller nimbler fingers’, are less likely to rush to finish a task (thus making errors), and they make more pliant workers generally. So the products thought of as “boys’ toys” are mostly assembled by women!
To obtain factory work, these young women move from rural areas within an industralising country (and sometimes from a neighbouring country). They have little education and realistically a factory job may be their best-paid option. Usually they send home a large part of their earnings to support their family at home; nearly 50% on average.
In places such as Batam Island, Indonesia, the workers have no cultural attachment to the place they live and no social life. They often work extended hours to fill the time and to provide themselves with some more income, since so much of it goes into remittances or cost-of-living expenses.
So far it seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement, however these women receive no guarantee of ongoing employment. They are usually employed on one- or two-year contracts with no guarantee of ongoing work. It is unusual for workers to stay in these workplaces more than a few years and very unusual beyond the age of 25. Unions call this precarious employment and they put the proportion of Indonesian workers employed precariously at 70% and on the Island of Batam at 98%.
Precarious workers do not receive social security entitlements, undercutting their prospects for long-term prosperity and good health.
They also do not remain in the workplace long enough to develop a sense of ownership, which is a loss for both employees and employers because long-term committed employees give feedback that leads to improved processes.

Photo:IMF Metal

Indonesian metalworkers unions FSPMI and Lomenik have made inroads in recent years in organising workers in Batamindo around the issues of ongoing employment and unfair dismissal. Today there are more than 50,000 union members 0n the island and it is regarded as a model for unions seeking to improve the rights of EPZ workers in the region.
That is not the full story however. As a result of past government crackdowns and also of ongoing union militancy, joining a union retains a stigma. The women who do not choose to join the union still exercise other means of resistance, such as slowing down work processes, taking extra long toilet breaks, being absent enmasse and even confronting bosses individually. There are working women’s organisations that do not take the form of traditional unions.
It may sound ironic but the issue that seems to cause the most grief is increasing wages(!) when companies do it indiscriminately or across-the-board, without taking account of seniority.
  1. […] Worker resistance takes different forms in export zones 14 February 2011 […]

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