Labouring in the Shadows

MALANG, Indonesia – It’s already late in the afternoon, but bright sunlight is still streaming into the houses here in Arjosari, a village in Malang. Inside one home is a gaggle of women hard at work, trying to finish as much as they can while the light is free and there is still a bit of time left before they have to start preparing dinner.

This is the home of Siti, who is also the ‘boss’ of sorts of the women here. But this is one boss who is as busy as everyone else, and her hands are a blur as she weaves the string through which feathers will later be added on a badminton shuttlecock. On a good day, this group of women can finish as much as 600 shuttlecocks, for which they will all be compensated… at some point, and if they’re lucky.

“We sell the products to the retail shop, which gives us a better price than a company, such as a sports club, sports shop, or stationery shop, ” says Siti. “If the (shuttlecocks) cannot be sold, the shop will give it back to us. If they can sell, they will pay us. Anyone can come and buy our products at home as well.”

Each worker is paid according to the work he or she has done. For instance, putting feathers around the shuttlecock will give a home-based worker about 1,500 rupiah (some 15 cents) per 12 pieces. Those who tie string around the feathers will get 600 rupiah (about six cents) a dozen.

But the quality of their work also determines how much their group will be paid. Siti says ‘medium quality’ will mean 10,000 rupiah per dozen while the ‘highest quality’ can get them as much as 25,000 rupiah per dozen. “I don’t know how much they sell in the shops,” says Siti, stopping momentarily to play with her little daughter.

Actually, this is a situation that is taking place all over Arjosari – albeit with different goods being produced by groups of workers—as well as elsewhere in Malang, some 90 kms south of Surabaya, capital of East Java, and in the rest of Indonesia. Indeed, this country may well be Southeast Asia’s capital of informal labour, with as much as 93 percent of its workforce now home-based. According to development experts, that’s a figure that seems to be increasing yearly. But now that the ASEAN has declared that the region will be a free-trade zone by 2015, experts warn that even more Indonesians, along with other peoples in Southeast Asia, may end up in the informal sector.

“The number of informal workers is (already) rising significantly in ASEAN because of the relaxing of industrial relationships,” says microfinance and small-business expert Daniel S. Stephanus of Ma Chung University here in Malang. “The factories reduce their formal workers and give the job to informal workers who used to be the formal workers.”

‘Work is work’

To many people, of course, it all boils down to whether they will be able to earn a living or not; it doesn’t matter if they are ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ workers. Experts say, though, that informal labour, which comprises home-based workers among others, are always at a disadvantage, not only because they almost always are unable to negotiate the best price for their work, but also because they are without the benefits and protection accorded to their counterparts who are formally employed.

The 1996 International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Home Workers defines a home worker as someone who works for remuneration in his or her home or in other premises of his or her choice, other than the employer’s workplace, resulting in a product or service as specified by the employer, irrespective of who provides the equipment, materials, or other inputs used.

The convention stipulates several measures to ensure that the rights of home workers are protected, including a periodical review of “a national policy on home work aimed at improving the situation of home workers”. It also says that this policy “shall promote, as far as possible, equality of treatment between home workers and other wage earners, taking into account the special characteristics of home work and, where appropriate, conditions applicable to the same or a similar type of work carried out in an enterprise”. Such equality of treatment, says the convention, shall include remuneration and statutory social security protection, even as “national laws and regulations on safety and health at work shall apply to home work”.

Unfortunately, as late as 2006, only five countries had ratified the convention: Finland, Ireland, Albania, the Netherlands, and Argentina. In Southeast Asia, where informal labour is popular and has been recognised as crucial to the economies in the region, governments do not even have laws to protect workers who are not part of the formal sector.

“Home-based workers are invisible to our government,” says Sutarti, chairperson of the Association of Indonesia Home-Based Women Workers (HWPRI) and herself a home-based worker. “We have been trying to do the best for our family and our community to provide a better standard of life, and to earn income and take good care of our family.”

“We need to gain bargaining power for these workers, decent wages, and people put more value into women’s work,” she adds.

Outsourcing haven

So far, though, such calls have fallen on deaf ears—even as indications are that just like here in Indonesia, more services and manufacturing contracts are being outsourced by companies across the region to informal workers. In Malaysia, the Asia Monitor Resource Centre reports, “Many factories have outsourced employment in certain production lines to subcontractors, who supply labour to the production lines in accordance with the fluctuating demands of the factory.”

In Thailand, the informal economy makes up almost 50 percent of that country’s employment. In neighbouring Vietnam, 33 million out of its 43 million employed people are home workers. Some 85 percent of Cambodia’s labour force, meanwhile, are also informal workers.

For companies, it’s a win-win situation: they are able to lower production costs while avoiding labour problems. For the workers, it’s a set-up replete with risks.

Former home-based worker Sisatgas Dwiko Putri, who is still a member of HWPRI recalls, “The job orders from the company sometimes were not stable. We had no orders for many months and were without income.”

“Also,” she says, “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. The workers must constantly adapt to be able to complete new tasks all the time, so I felt insecure.”

Sri, another Arjosari villager who heads a group of home-based workers stringing badminton rackets, also recounts, “Many years ago – around 1997, 1998 (during the Asian financial crisis) – 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 didn’t care at all about the brand name of the product or what company we work for. We just continued working, that’s all.”

Siti points out as well, “We also must pay when we go to the hospital when we get hurt from working.”

Empowering home-based workers

Bereft of any aid or protection from the government, informal workers have managed to survive in part because of help from non-government organisations like HWPRI.

Founded by the home-based women workers in Malang, HWPRI aims to support and enhance the capacities of women workers in particular. The association conducts workshops and training courses on a variety of subjects, such as marketing strategy, policy and law, and leadership. Sutarti says, however, that it is “hard for home-based women workers to stop their daily work and come out to join the training or participate in other social or political activities”.

Still, she says, “We have been working to support home-based workers (initially in Malang) so we can gain more bargaining power with the businessmen or the companies. 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.”

HWPRI is also encouraging home-based workers to set up their own businesses. And while Sutarti admits that it is difficult for the women to “collect capital” for their own ventures, the association has managed to produce the likes of Sisatgas, who has gone from being a home-based worker to being an entrepreneur.

Just a year ago, Sisatgas started making and selling an instant herbal drink that she calls ‘Malati’. Now in charge of planning and managing her own business, she says she is still building her customer base.

“I know that there are many more things I have to learn about doing business,” says Sisatgas. “(But) I am quite happy now. I am able to set my own price of production and better plan how to earn for my family.”

As for her former colleagues in home-based work, observers can only hope that ASEAN would take a second look at its one-market ambitions and ensure that these are aligned with the promises it makes in its own new Charter: to alleviate poverty, promote sustainable development, and enhance the well-being and livelihood of the people.