Published: 29/04/2008

Moral Economy of Women at the Factory: Social Dynamics at the Workplace (5)


The concept of “social capital” could simply be defined as the relationship between individuals, which forms a beneficial social network for various shared interests. This network becomes a material basis that could be accumulated by each individual to develop their potential. In the context of the female factory labor, the network is directly related with the factory environment and their social and residential surroundings. In this article, Khodijah presented how the relation between both environments is greatly important to support a female worker who tries to survive in the industrial relations. They usually take benefit from that social capital to find new employment sectors or lodging, as a means to recruit a family or relative in a certain company, and so on. Almost all of these social relations are pragmatic and closely related to the reality of daily life that the women workers must tackle in a short period of time; an apolitical social relation.


The migration of women from rural areas to work as laborers in the city is based more  on the urgent need to survive, and to leave the nature and brink of the economic vulnerability in villages. These factors resulted in several implications that relate not only to economic interests per se, but also to the urban lifestyle in the city. Most women workers perceive what they experience in the city as an unavoidable condition. As such, transforming into an urban citizen with a totally different lifestyle from the lifestyle of “villagers” is a way to show the social environment that they have undergone a symbolic mobility to become a “modern person.” The transformation of their social status seems to be very important for them, as they would return to their villages every Eid and show the success that they have achieved in the city to their relatives in the village.


Basically, such way of thinking relates to how these women workers perceives modernity. They tend to maintain the “modern” lifestyle and attempt to not return to the agrarian life. The strategy they used is building a strong social capital among the laborers. That way, they could secure their position within the LMF system; the social relation that has been formed can be used as a basis to find and get a job (again).


The cases of women workers that Khodijah, Maimunah, and Agustini have explained in this paper are examples of how such consciousness seems to be stronger than their class consciousness regarding their relation and position within the production process. In any case, such consciousness is apparent from their view on working overtime. The women workers realize that it is a form of the company’s exploitation of laborers. However, they accept and are willing to work overtime due to very strong pragmatic consciousness, such as the rising prices of primary needs, self-adjustment to the urban culture, and various daily essentials. Although hard and tiring, some women workers consider working overtime as greatly important, both economically and socially.


“If we work overtime every day, we could pocket a good amount of 1.5 million… just in two weeks. But, true, we get dog-tired. But if we don’t work overtime then our work is still… our poor friends. Our work would have to be done by our friends… that makes us uncomfortable… Anyhow it is hard to get our supervisor’s permission to go home… they might not allow us to.” From Enong’s broken sentences above, we can find several important aspects apart from economic pragmaticism, namely social pragmaticism, which is keeping a harmonious relationship with fellow laborers, and pragmaticism based on “saving one’s self” from the pressure of industrial apparatus. It is within such sphere of life or industrial condition that women workers adjust, agree, and complain of all various things. Such reality is reproduced constantly within their daily lives that it becomes a normal and common social practice.


However, they implement the basic idea of that sphere in their daily lives without critically examining it. In addition, the apparatus of the company often conditions the women workers to think of overtime work as unexpected and unavoidable. If it is conditioned as such all the time, overtime work would be considered as common. This was explained by Maimunah as follows:


We never know, when we leave for work, whether we will be working overtime or not. Usually we leave for work in the morning, and we will be informed in the afternoon that we would have to work overtime that day. Sometimes they tell us in such a short notice like near the end of our working hours, so just imagine how tired we are. And not only that, we sometimes have to work overtime till 9 pm.


It is obvious from the statement above that laborers are “forced to” adjust themselves to the industrial relations that slowly become a discourse that is planted so deep in their way of thinking and, as Foucault (1991) described in Discipline and Punish, is carried out as something normal. It is at this level that the power of industrial relations work within the laborers. Class consciousness does not suddenly occur as industrial power does not only operate in that area but also within the lifestyle domain, for instance, laborers always try to mimic the consumptive behavior of the middle class. In that sphere, the (pragmatic) effort to fulfill daily needs is the most rational choice compared to the fulfillment of political needs based on class consciousness. Therefore, it could be understood that they tend to build a strong social capital to face their daily problems, rather than solve industrial relations issues. According to Maimunah, the pattern of relations during overtime work, arisan (a form of microfinance through social gatherings) among women workers, and food selling to fellow laborers are all parts of the “social strategy” that the laborers develop when facing oppressive industrial instruments. Meanwhile, according Pakasi, that “strategy” is used by women workers to curb the pressure of the often immoral industrial apparatus (e.g. sexual harassment).

Without such social capital, it will be hard for them to survive in big cities. As Maimunah stated, they developed that social capital with NGO activists. This could happen as NGOs that are concerned in labor or in other issues often provide trainings and teachings that “stimulate” their political awareness. Usually, they are educated in issues such as leadership, organization system, neoliberalism, etc. Hard and tiring, these issues are rarely considered in their daily lives. The interesting part is the rational logic of these women workers as participants of the trainings and capacity buildings. They used that opportunity to not only expand their knowledge, but also to accumulate social capacity (social networking) in order to survive in the city. Such rationality is interesting. Most of them had participated in the capacity building programs held by NGOs or labor unions, but the knowledge they gain from the programs are rarely used in the factory. Instead, it is the pragmatism to survive in the industrial environment that drove them to build and expand social relations outside the main group (laborers). This relation will be functioned in particular conditions, for instance, in layoffs, miscarriages, and food-selling, etc.


For women workers, building and expanding relations outside the main group is a pragmatic action that is far more important than “discovering” a (political) class consciousness from the capacity building programs. They used that “strategy” as factories/companies tend to hinder and limit their space of movements in building and developing their social capital in the working environment. Ika, for instance, stated,


“When I receive an invitation to attend a capacity building, (my superiors) do not make it easy for me to attend it because they said that my part is a difficult part and it is difficult to find a replacement for me, so it is not made easy, sometimes by the Korean sometimes by the chief.”


However, the labor are able to overcome such obstacles. The chance to build social capital through capacity building programs held by the labor activists benefits them in a more social context. The pattern of industrial production and pressure of the patriarchal culture, added with their direct access to consumerism, have indeed faded the “class consciousness” of women workers. However, a “pragmatic consciousness” to benefit from the organizations occurred in laborers in order to fulfill their interests.


This can be seen from the experiences of the women workers in this article. For instance, Tati, a labor working in an electronic company in Jakarta, is active in the management of PUK and labor union. Through the religious activities that she often attends, Tati was requested to become part of the labor union management. This is similar to Ika’s case. She was willing to represent her line in the PUK management because she was worried about her friends’ condition and future if no one represents them in the labor union at the factory level. According to Ika, if no one represents her group in PUK, no one will fight for her and her friends’ interests. Ika understood quite well that all the interests and rights of laborers can be “solved” through labor unions. Individually, said Ika, laborers would not be able to solve labor issues if they fight on their own and not through labor unions. Such motivations prompted Ika’s journey and actions during her period serving as a PUK officer. The actions of Tati and Ika are thus centered more on pragmatic considerations instead of class consciousness as imagined by Karl Marx.


Does “pragmatic consciousness” influences political behaviour and orientation? If this is analysed based on “total of votes”, identification of political parties, ideology descriptions, as well as behavior and policy or evaluation on political-economic regulations, the influence is still very minimum. In political momentum such as general elections, laborers are largely indifferent of the power of votes to at least initiate their existence in Indonesia’s political social reality. Choosing “abstain” or “boycott” is considered ineffective as it does not directly impact the interests of laborers. The politics of laborers could no longer be identified as part of their political life or even for the class itself. Their imagination has transcended beyond the limits of other classes. For instance, we can discover exactly similar aspirations in the lifestyles of laborers and the middle class. This means that as part of the political struggle, the articulation and choices of laborers are no longer the determining factors of class consciousness.


As demonstrated by the writers of these essays, the consumptive behavior and position-awareness as laborers initiated the “pragmatic consciousness” that prioritizes the interests and needs of the subject itself rather than presenting a political pretension to create social change. More than that, until now labor unions are passive in terms of the fight for political power, and even tend to reject their class consciousness. Such organizations seem to be used more as a door to solve the laborers’ pragmatic interests. However, if “pragmatic consciousness” is used as an entrance to solve labor issues, then laborers can be more flexible in playing their intellectual ability organically; laborers will be involved further in labor unions only to fulfill pragmatic interests and in the longer term it will be essential for the laborers themselves.