Working life

Blogs, Ethical trading & business, Labour rights, Women's rights article written on the 20 May 2010

From sportswear factories to domestic work overseas, read Sewani’s accounts of her past employment experiences.

Short-term contracts

After graduating from high school I followed in my mother’s footsteps and moved to an industrial district near Jakarta.  I spent two months of looking for work, then I was accepted at a factory that produced a famous brand of sports shoes.  I worked in the sewing department.  At that time I was on a six month contract and later this was extended with another six month contract.  But before my second contract ended I was sent home and never called back to work. 

To this day I have no idea why this happened; I was never formally notified that I’d lost my job or anything.  I just never heard back.

Life as an overseas migrant worker

After suddenly losing my first job with the sports shoe supplier, an opportunity arose for me to work overseas as a migrant worker.  I departed with a contract to work from 2004-2006.  It was my first time on a plane and I was very scared.  I had no idea what kind of world I would enter on the other side of the journey.  After the contract expired, it could have been immediately extended, but I intentionally took leave first so that I could go home to see my mother.

On the plane trip back to Indonesia I was no longer scared.  I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible!

When I returned to Indonesia I felt that I was no longer interested in continuing work as an overseas domestic servant.  Furthermore my mother didn’t approve to me going over there.  She was always worrying—worrying about my safety as a young woman abroad, especially with all the news about migrant workers who were abused or exploited by their bosses.  My mother was also worried that if anything happened to her I wouldn’t be able to come home because I would be tied down by my contract.

For all these reasons, I decided not to go back overseas.

Ups and downs of overseas domestic work

To many, the chance to do domestic work overseas is pretty good.   Compared to other places, the standard wage in these counties is fairly high – I received about four times as much as I can make working in Indonesian factories.  And yes you can even take leave? at the last place I was employed I had two days off a month. But even though the wages are higher, the cost of living is also high.  Whether we get payed the legal wage or are allowed to take leave depends entirely on whether or not we get a good employer.

The first time around I got an employer who was horrible.  I was paid well below the minimum wage at only $290 AUD per month.  My employer had me working in two places? both her home and her restaurant.  I was lucky that I was able to convince my agent to find me a new employer who would pay me according to the legal minimum wage.

My second employer paid me in accordance with the minimum wage around $520 AUD per month.  I was also allowed to holiday two days a month, although when she offered this I usually declined, because if I worked through my holidays she agreed that I could still be paid.  I worked non-stop instead and I got as much as $650 AUD a month.

But what these wages don’t reveal is the costs involved in being a migrant domestic worker.

For the first 5 months, I didn’t receive any of my wages, because 100% had to be paid to my agency in accordance with the contract.   It is fairly standard that there is a clause like this in the agreement with the agency that sends Indonesian female workers overseas.  The idea is that your wages for the first several months go back to the agency to compensate the expense paid by the agency for training and administering your departure.

When I finally paid off my debts, I was able to send remittances back to my mother once every three months.  In one transfer I sent $490 AUD.  After changing my boss, I sent $1460 AUD.  I transferred this money every three months to save on transfer fees.

My mother decided that the remittance money would be used to cover the cost of living for my family.  My grandmother in Sumatra was still alive at this time so she was sent money for her everyday needs and later for her healthcare when she fell ill.  The remittance money was also used to send my two younger siblings to school.

I myself used the remainder of my wage for my living needs overseas, so I didn’t have any left over to make savings.

Impressions from abroad

You might also think that the chance for me to work overseas and see a foreign country would have been very exciting.  Unfortunately I was working inside nearly the entire time – my window to the outside world was television – but I couldn’t understand the local language that well so I felt like I didn’t know anything.

But I did find some things funny when I got back to Indonesia.  For example, I must have got used to houses being bug free overseas because when I came back I kept noticing insects and bugs everywhere – whereas growing up it hardly even registered!

Back to the factory floor

In 2007 I applied again to work in the sports shoe factory where I used to work before I was retrenched in 2004. I was immediately taken in by the sewing department.  This time I became a permanent worker, not just a contract worker any more.

Before I got status as a permanent worker I had to undergo a three month trial period.  This was really tough – during this time the pressure is really high.  Even if we are feeling really ill there is no way we wouldn’t come to work.  Our supervisors often don’t follow the training procedures either.  For instance if there is someone that they like or a relative, they are hired, even if they are not good at their work.  That’s just what it’s like.  So I was relieved when I passed the three month period and got formally accepted as a worker.

Workplace worries

To begin with my work was fairly routine.  I worked in Section X of the assembly.  Section X works on producing just one small part of the shoe which would later be fully assembled overseas.  However, this situation changed once I became involved with the union’s activities.  I had the opportunity to attend a demonstration in 2009 which demanded for improvements in working conditions and wages.  After that, I was removed from Section X.

Almost every day I am moved around from one section to another, even though formally speaking I’m still in Section X assembly.  It makes me feel tired and depressed.  I keep working as hard as possible, but I feel I don’t have any stability in my work.  I know that’s what their aim is—to make me feel unsettled.  But so far I’ve been able to put up with it, because I know I’m not alone.  There are about 20 of my friends from other sections who are experiencing the same kind of treatment.

It’s true that there are policies about things like overtime and work placement.  But that is just another reality of the life of those working in factories –  if our boss doesn’t get along with us or doesn’t like us, they can do whatever they want.

This includes deciding who gets to work overtime and who doesn’t.  Those of us who have been singled out are never given the opportunity to work overtime, whereas overtime offers us a greater income.

Our bosses can just make the excuse that it is the Human Resource Department that makes the decision.  But it isn’t possible that the Human Resources make those decisions without input from production management, who know whether or not overtime is necessary.  Or on the issue of placement, Human Resources doesn’t just decide who goes where, because the one who knows which sections need more labour is the one who has authority in a particular section.

In my case, for example, my status is still formally recorded as a worker in Section X of the assembly.  But in reality I’ve been moving around from one section to another.  Their excuse is that Section X has too many people so I’m needed in other areas.  How long will this problem last for?  And why me?  Who put me forward and decided that I’m the one who has to be constantly rotated – if not my boss?

Bitter ironies

There is something else that I’ve experienced with a former factory supervisor that really made me feel sad.  At that time I had just got permission to stay home because I was ill for two days.  When I came back to work again I handed over the doctor’s certificate to my boss.  He took the piece of paper roughly, glanced at it for a second, and then in front of me he thrusts the sheet of paper in the direction of one of my workers (who the boss really trusts) while shouting “You! Take this to Human Resources” His face was really sour.  I felt so offended and embarrassed in front of my friends because he was so rude.

Every morning, in our daily briefing, he always lectured us on how to be polite.  So I started to question, just because I am an ordinary worker/operator, does that make it ok to treat me rudely like that, where as we as workers are obliged to be polite to our bosses?  But that’s how it is, as a worker, I cannot really protest, even though the feeling of injustice aches in my chest.

The thing that makes me feel good about my work is that there is a union that really supports me, gives me enthusiasm and help when I need it.