Published: 29/04/2008

Moral Economy of Women at the Factory: Social Dynamics at the Workplace (2)


The relation between workers and employers in Indonesia in the 1970s was still largely characterized by a rural-style patron-client social relation. The labor of traditional brick factories around Bekasi, for instance, assume the role of client, whereas factory owners take on the role of patron, by providing all kinds of protection. That pattern gradually disappeared along with the change in a majority of villages in Bekasi into an industrial area. The number of entrepreneurs of traditional bricks fell drastically. Industrialization pushed various changes in the local level, such as the revocation of land ownership rights or villagers who “changed profession” to factory workers or started working at other non-agricultural sectors. The migrant labor that “flooded” the industrial areas around Bekasi advantaged local citizens who then started various businesses, such as dorms, boarding rooms, small diners, and other services. Industrialization has changed the face of Bekasi’s villages, both in infrastructure and in its more “urbanized”1 culture. For instance, making appointments with fellow workers to eat and shop together in a mall or purchasing cellphones. Their choice in fashion also adopts the taste of the middle class. Their consumptive behavior is currently even more difficult to be differentiated with the consumptive behavior of other social classes. This means that the presence of women workers in the industrial area must be placed within the context of cultural changes, and their strategies in handling such changes.


The relocation of workers from the agricultural sector to the industrial sector is not only a change of productive relations per se but also a strategy. An agricultural productive relation tends to be patron-client in nature (the relation between the land owner and farmers is not only economic-based but also largely characterized by social, cultural, and political protection from the patron), whereas the relation pattern of capital owners and laborers in the industrial production model is solely for economic interests without involving political protection. Women workers that have entered the industrial relations instantly become a social class that is detached altogether from the patron-client pattern; they have the freedom to determine their political attitude and fate. However, the labor’s freedom is not on deciding how and with what resources a commodity will be produced, but more on making their own decisions in determining their paths in life, including survival strategies by building a strong social capital, as revealed by the women workers in this book.

The workforce that came flocking from the rural areas also indirectly fostered the growth and change in urban society (Evers, 1995: 8). The shift in the production pattern from agricultural (farm) to industry (off farm) subsequently renewed the interindividual relationships within it. The shift in workforce and the culturally “urbanized” rural areas also triggered the shift in values and economic orientation. James Scott (1976) who studied several villages in Southeast Asia, for instance, found several cultural aspects, such as social harmonious values, which highly influences the rural economic system. According to Scott, the social relation of rural agricultural production emphasizes more on the “economic moral” aspect compared to the political economic orientation; the social relation is prioritized due to its function as a social security system. This way of thinking is more or less implemented by the women workers in this book. They built a certain social system, based on shared hometowns, workplaces, and ethnicities. In that relationship, they still implement rural social values in order to survive in the city.


Such “moral economy” was criticized by Samuel Popkin (1979). He argued that Scott over-romanticized the rural social economic condition that prioritizes social harmony. According to Popkin, villagers themselves have a political economic reasoning, orientizing in the accumulation of capital. However, we do not need to discuss further the dispute of Popkin and Scott’s arguments. Both economic orientations, moral and political, could actually be found in the context of women working in several industrial areas. Basically, the efforts of women workers in building a social relation, both in their residences and their labor union, do not only contain a moral aspect as Scott had analyzed, but also a political economic aspect like Popkin’s analysis. Women workers use the social network as a “self protection”, for instance, as a “medium” to find or get a new job when their work contract at the old company expires. In addition, they also use it to create trade relations or help relatives from the village that want to work in a certain factory. This means that the sociocultural and political economic orientations are present at the same time in the logic of the women workers, who try hard to strategize and survive in the industrial relations. The network can function as a social capital for laborers in finding a job or strengthening a sense of security between them, both in their residence and factory. The sociocultural and political economic orientations are the women workers’ strategy, gained from their life experiences and further developed in a rational manner for a shared interest. This aspect is greatly important to be taken into consideration if we intend to make a comprehensive study on women workers.


The women workers’ rational consciousness is not only formed by the industrialization process, but also by the strong wave of modernization in the academic world and other means of dissemination that broke into the rural citizens. The dazzling city life that they see in textbooks or television inspires them to leave the village as soon as possible and live a modern life in the city. The average level of formal education of the labor in Indonesia in the late 1980s was higher compared to the working class that witnessed and experienced directly the first wave of industrial expansion in early 1970s. This was strengthened even more by the development of a number of new industrial areas and a formation of the working class community – kampongs and labor dorms – around and even inside factories (Duval, 2001).


The complexity of such industrial production model is also currently faced by Indonesia. Pro-market economic theories believe that the economic growth of developing countries will improve if they agree to implement industrialization. From the perspective of macro statistics, it is true that economic growth seems to be increasing. However, if we analyze it further, in reality, the industrialization occurring in Indonesia is not able to alleviate poverty and reduce unemployment. The number of unemployment grows steadily every year. The total rate of unemployment reached 5.4% in 1997 and increased to 10.8% in 2004. Insert the “hidden unemployment” category, which is the group of unemployed or underemployed individuals that are not counted in the official figures, and the employment rate reaches more than 40 million people. The same applies for the poor. The total of poor people in March 2006 was recorded at 39.05 million (17.75%), while in the previous year(February 2005), it was “still” 35,10 million (15,96%). In conclusion, the number of poor people in Indonesia increases by 3.95% annually (LIPS, 2004).


The rate of poverty in the villages, according to the official data of Statistics Indonesia in September 2006, is slightly higher compared to that in the cities. The number of the poor in rural areas increased by 2.06 million, while the addition of the poor in cities is “only” 1,89 million people. If we disaggregate the data by gender, from 108 million poor people with an income below Rp 19,000 per day, women makes more than a half of that number. The layoffs carried out by various manufacturing industries discriminate more against women than men. In just one year, since February 2005 until February 2006, a number of 971,200 women were dismissed from the employment market. This relates strongly to the closing or legal bankruptcy of various companies with a large number of female employees.


The issue of labor in Indonesia became even worse with the implementation of the Labour Market Flexibility (LMF)2, which refers to the capacity of the employment market to adjust with changes in the economic condition in order to fit the needs of the company for the number and working hours of workforces. Flexibility concerning fees is adjusted to productivity and profitability, adapting the job with the change of needs. Basically, workforce functions as factors of production, orientation, and corporative security, as well as stability and economic growth. This system is an induction from the global phenomenon of latecapitalism that eases a one-sided layoff by the company. A majority of the laid-off victims are women workers that usually fill the operator positions. In addition, LMF also created casualization and informalization of work. Being more economically fragile, women are forced to enter such a condition. Such mechanism clearly does not benefit the labor that are not only required to work in a just-in-time production system, but also with the target-oriented system (piece-rate workers). Women workers are largely disadvantaged with such work mechanism. Not only are they discriminated, but they also could not take a menstrual leave or enjoy other various reproductive health facilities because they are forced to fulfill the target.


Since 2000, many companies in Indonesia implemented the LMF mechanism using an outsourcing system. This is a serious issue, as until now, there are no existing laws and regulations that protect contracted labor. Results of the National Labor Mentor Forum (FPBN) research in 2005-2006 showed that from 92 companies in Tangerang and Bekasi, 62% of them uses contracted labor and more than 50% of them are women. The relations of laborers in the national industry sector also increase the number of female migrants. In the last ten years, the number reached 72% of the total Indonesian migrant labor. Every year, Indonesia sends an average of 400,000 workers abroad without a clear legal status and regulation of protection (BPS, 2006). The high number of unemployed women is also being taken advantage by prostitution and pornography businesses. The total of underaged prostitutes reached 20%, excluding 100,000 girls who are subjected to trafficking annually (Boulton, 2004).


More than that, the role or duty that is given to the female labor, for instance the obligation to work overtime, gives an impression that their efforts are not merely used to decide their own bargaining position on their salary, but also have a function of prosperity. Therefore, a female laborer is an economic agent that could maximize her prosperity as well as adhere to the limitations of working hours and budget determined by the company. In relation to that, a female labor must make a right choice between working at the factory, working at home, or having fun in maximizing her own potential. All those could happen because women workers have been detached from the productive assets that they once owned. When they were in industrial relations, they could only access a productive source, but have no control and influence to the industrial policy. This condition certainly contributes toward the various labor issues in the industrial world.



1Basically, the perspective of mobility from rural areas to the city is impregnated with the process of urbanization at the sphere of reason; thus, the way of thinking of these villagers is urbanized or “put into boxes”. Such phenomenon could be observed from their consumptive behavior.

2This term is coined by the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) as stated in Law No. 13 of 2003 on Labor (the Labor Law). The concept of labour market flexibility is based on a fordism production system, which is considered effective and efficient.