Current Project / Women & Work / Women Workers

Published: 29/04/2008

Moral Economy of Women at the Factory: Social Dynamics at the Workplace (4)


An asymmetrical industrial relation is managed by women workers in various ways, such as using strategies or negotiations with the industrial apparatus or developing a particular social strategy. A case of this is Enong, who experienced a miscarriage in 2006. As presented by Diana Teresa Pakasi in this book, the company where Enong works considered her absence during the miscarriage as not part of the menstrual or maternity leaves, thus she was not entitled to receive a full salary. However, Enong pressured her company to pay her wages and involved in her factory’s labor union (PUK). Instead of fighting for rights as a member, the union oppressed her instead. The network of knowledge and power that the union had made the organization feel that they do not need to be equal with Enong. In order to proceed with solving the case, they required Enong “to recruit 10 other laborers to be members of the labor union”. Fulfilling the requirement was not easy, yet Enong chose to see it from a positive point of view: securing fellow laborers as a social capital that could protect her in the future, as well as part of a lesson for laborers to not hastily become a member of the labor union when they face a problem. On the other hand, it was also a disciplining process to laborers, which at a certain degree can be considered as an absolute truth, that should be adhered to by the labor union, laborers, and apparatus of the company.


The domination of male laborers over women workers in the labor union organizations, as presented by Erni Agustini in this book, was also experienced by Tati. This PUK officer also clashed with her fellow officers when she proposed that women workers should also have the right to financially support their husbands and children. The suggestion, which is actually one of laborers’ basic rights, was rejected by the male-majority PUK officers. They argued that it is uncommon for wives (women) to financially support their husbands (men). As a result, that “case” caused Tati to be pushed aside, and even removed, from the labor union. One of the senior officials of the labor union once even reprimanded Tati and drove her outasked her to leave only because she brought her child to a course and training held by the labor union out of town. In short, the male-dominated management of the labor union had yet to fully understand that the needs of male and women workers are different.


Tati’s volunteerism and involvement as a PUK officer fighting for labor rights became even harder when she had to face the norms of the division of work based on sex and gender. This means that Tati plays the double role as a housewife and PUK officer with the responsibilities of taking care of her family as well as fighting for labor rights at the factory. In the name of “harmony”, Tati shouldered the burden of both responsibilities. However, she was unable to maintain that “balance” constinuously. Her household was damaged. Her husband divorced her on the grounds that she spent more time with the labor organization instead of running their household. Tati is one of the victims of the culture in society that places the role of women and men in an unequal power and position (Budiman, 2000: 15-35).


women workers themselves tend to perceive the imbalanced social power and role as common and not something that should be seen as an issue. For instance, Enong realizes very well the imbalance in the relation between the husband and wife. Her husband forbids her to socialize with male friends outside the workplace. Before she leaves to work, she should also ask for her husband’s permission. On the other hand, the same thing does not apply for him. Enong does not argue with him or oppose it because “the religion obliges so”. Enong’s strategy to maintain her household enabled her family to carry on, economically. She could play a double role even though she “had” to sacrifice herself.


Nowadays, women should work, so that they can earn their own money to purchase things they want without having to ask their husbands. In addition, if women work, then their husbands will not be able to treat them unfairly because the wife also assists in earning money for the household. On the other hand, if women both work and take care of their children, it will be very tiring indeed.


The way women workers such as Tati and Enong view the disparate relation between men and women is closely linked to the social consciousness that the patriarchal culture has successfully created and built. This continues even when they entered a new space, the factory awareness. Nonetheless, the gender-based division (of labor) is biased with sex-based disaggregation. Particularly in developing countries, women will always be placed second in the power relations within any sphere. Both men and women will always maintain the traditional custom on the “suitable and proper” jobs for women as well as the perception on who the “bread-winner in the household” is (Xin Meng, 1998: 4).

Similar to the differentiation between sex and gender, social classes could also be broken down into three dimensions: the social economic position, social role, and representation. The social economic position refers to the access of individuals or families to income, wealth, power, job prestige, and education. Meanwhile, the social role of women workers is very limited because they are economically weak. On the other hand, apart from the complicated and difficult access, the patriarchal culture hinders them to involve themselves deeper in the labor organization. This costed them the opportunity to represent themselves. In relation to women workers, the social class in question is not only limited to the economy but also the social values expected by the individual laborers at their respective social economic positions. Therefore, the women workers’ strategy of survival is far more complex than the category of economy per se. They are also required to adjust their consumption pattern with the condition of their daily lives. The symbolic behavior confirmed their membership of a social class, and even blurred their own identity as they imitated the “taste” of another social class, for instance by shopping for trendy clothes at the mall or purchasing cellphones to communicate among themselves.


Bordieau (1984) in Distinction observed how a social economic position unconsciously formed a habit to follow the style, behaviour, and values associated with a structural position. This led to a reproduction of intergenerational social economic position. When one performs a particular work, s/he will always emphasize several aspects that symbolize the values, taste, and behavior of a certain social class. In these series of essays, we can discover behaviors of women workers that similarise that of the social class superior to them. This means that the (social class) behavior of women workers is too complex to be understood merely as a “body” within the production process. Reality shows that such behavior is closely related to their strategy to survive in the city. Such strategy could not be seen partially within the industrial relation alone, but it is more than that. In short, the pop culture and consumption behavior that influence women workers are handled with a certain strategy that also influences their survival in the city. 


Several experts in political science have an optimistic view that the dynamics of politics that are currently happening will influence the map of labor politics in Indonesia. Vedi Hadiz (1997), for instance, viewed laborers as social agencies will largely color the political social life in a more organized form due to the strengthening of the working class consciousness. At least, this is signaled by the existence and development of several new independent labor unions since the last quarter of the 1990s. These unions can be an alternative labor union to the All Indonesian Workers’ Union (SPSI) which was known as an embodiment of the state corporation. However, in the reality of daily life, the political activity of laborers does not significantly influence the politics of labor in whole. This is possibly caused by the partial viewpoint that tends to draw a line between the strategy of laborers in facing the unequal industrial relations and the reality of laborers’ daily lives that are constantly in contact with pop culture and consumptive behavior.


Several observers of labor issues have attempted to analyze this issue. Despite not being overly optimistic, a part of them believes that in a short term, the power of laborers will have a significant influence. Warouw (2004), for instance, saw that the lifestyle or behaviour of laborers that largely absorbs the “consumer culture” caused them to be uprooted from practical politics. They have become more pragmatic in facing the urban life. They have since long desired for such lifestyle as a door to leave the muck of agricultural life that they consider outdated. Their interaction with pop culture since elementary school, both through school textbooks and electronic media such as the television and radio, seems to have informed them and brought them closer to consumer culture (Warouw, 2004). The consumptive behavior of social classes in urban society is inevitably faced by the laborers with all the consequences; they are able to build their self-image as being more successful compared to being in the village.


Coming from an agricultural background, laborers imagine that being an urban citizen equals to being modern, and being modern is to behave like people in local soap operas. Hair-straightening, make up, “chilling out” in shopping malls, a stereo set in rented houses, and other behaviours made it even more difficult to differentiate them from the middle class. In the short term, such consumptive behavior diminishes the laborers’ political will. They tend to choose to “play safe”, both economically and politically. The political strategy behind such consumptive behavior is often seen as a non-political behavior, thus disadvantaging activists that aim to organize the laborers. Another interesting note is the “production of knowledge” of women workers, as a logical consequence of their interaction with pop culture and various information gained from electronic and press media familiar to them1. In the long term, results from the production of knowledge that the women workers gain in the city – including economic, social, and cultural aspects – as pictured in this book, will be a cultural capital for them to be more active in playing a social role in several industrial areas.


Nevertheless, “the production of knowledge” is not a simple matter. This abstract issue must be interpreted to be understood more easily. For instance, Wendy Luttrel (1989) in her article entitled “Working-Class Women’s Ways of Knowing: Effects of Gender, Race and Class” studied two women workers, colored and white, on how they understand and define “knowledge”. According to Luttrell, their comprehension and definition of knowledge are different, depending on their own cognitive experience. However, cognitive consciousness is indeed difficult to differentiate from class consciousness (that should have been) formed in a capitalist production model.


In Enong’s case, for instance, despite admitting that she felt exhaused, she would still work overtime. Working overtime, for Enong, is not merely a strategy to survive, but also an effort to fulfill the “standard” of society’s consumptive behavior in the city that has become their habitat. Their overtime is used to satisfy their consumptive behavior by purchasing various cosmetics, shoes, clothes, bags, jewelry, and even hair color. Similar to this example, other women workers also find it necessary to purchase products such as bags, clothes, and accessories offered by the Multi Level Marketing (MLM) among laborers. Almost every Sunday, Enong visits several shopping malls in Sunter, Mangga Dua, and Kelapa Gading, accompanied by her husband or friends. However, Linda’s story is a different case. Although she often talks about the urban lifestyle, Linda did not get carried away by the trend to color her hair or shop for clothes every month just to follow the trend. The case study in this book shows that the women workers’ consumptive behavior is not merely an apolitical behavior, but also their strategy to adjust with the pop culture of urban society.


Indeed, such consciousness will not exist in the limbo of social reality. The women workers’ behavior can (perhaps) be explained using the concept of mimicry, defined by Bhabha (2004) as the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite2. It is a form of imitation by the economically, socially and culturally inferior individual of the more superior social class. Sociologically, this is also an expression of inferiority as well as a medium of adjustment, causing a form of identity distortion. The mimicry of women workers can be observed from their consumptive pattern, which is largely similar to the middle class’. The term ‘mimicry’ is used because the effort to imitate is basically a strategy to handle life in a place that is not their “territory”, in order to feel more comfortable and secure. However, the essays in this book do not separate the strategies to survive economically and culturally because both are parallel and must be faced simultaneously by the women workers.


On the other hand, as a product of the capitalist industry, women workers consume “knowledge” and “culture”, both parts of the capitalist discourse practice. This is part of the reproductive process of human resources that simultaneously forms a “self-adjustment” within the laborers. This means that social reproduction and self-adjustment need not only reproduction of specialization in each production process, but also the reproduction of behavioral submission of the laborers to abide by an established regulation or order. For instance, laborers continuously adhere to the work rhythm that the companies regulated and “conditioned” to the extent that they can no longer critically question the exploitative work rhythm. It is also related to the economic pressure to push laborers to always try fulfilling the demands, such as dressing in accordance with (the trend of) the urban lifestyle. In other words, consumptive behavior has a big role in the disciplining process of laborers. Other than reproducing “skills” in the process of production, that behavior reproduced a certain lifestyle. The urban lifestyle, as explained by Siti Nurwati Khodijah in this book, is a series of reality from the objective condition in the women workers’ environment.


To a certain degree, the “obligation” to fulfill the needs of daily life and the “desire” to adjust with the urban culture have conditioned women workers to accept overtime work. This is caused not only by the influence of the social and cultural environment at the workplace nor the “pressure” of fellow laborers. This is caused because women workers, like Linda, have closely associated themselves with the consumptive behavior of urban society that encouraged them to earn more through overtime. It seems that refusing to work overtime is unthinkable and will likely cause the anger of fellow laborers. Such perspective is clearly within the context of an asymmetric industrial relation; laborers are always placed in a vulnerable position.  The solidarity built among women workers as a social capital should indeed be maintained. However, the laborers’ togetherness in the industrial space can actually reduce the feeling of an asymmetric industrial relation. It is very clear that the social sanction given by a group of laborers to their fellow laborers is a locus where power operates within the industrial relation and lifestyle.


The sociological operation of power seems to be successful in establishing itself in various relational mechanisms between the industrial apparatus and lifestyle. “The mistake of a single worker is the mistake of the whole team” or “an uncompleted target would certainly prolong the hours of overtime work, thus everyone needs to work overtime”, as Linda stated, are some examples of the discourse of women workers. Although the discourse of overtime work seems to be dominant, there are several women workers that are “brave” enough to resist the mainstream. Ika, as Margaret Aliyatul Maimunah wrote, often undergoes overtime work that disadvantages herself. Apart from getting extremely tired, the overtime she receives is inadequate with the efforts that she puts in. In addition, some of the overtime should still be set aside for buying vitamins or milk to avoid falling ill. Ika then “chose” to not work overtime anymore, rather than being overtaken by severe exhaustion which may cost her money. However, the sense of solidarity often does not embody in a political attitude. In contrast, they transform it into a social pressure among the laborers. Laborers no longer perceive overtime work as the company’s coercion but rather as a form of solidarity among themselves.



1In this context, the “production of knowledge” is the individual’s ability to produce a set of thoughts gained from their life experiences, which will be used to decide the strategy that must be taken to live comfortably.  

2Taken from the original text in Homi K Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge 2004).