Women Research Institute

Promoting women leadership and inclusive,
gender-based, and sustainable natural resource governance

Moral Economy of Women at the Factory: Social Dynamics at the Workplace (1)

 

Introduction

This essay is based on the research findings on women workers by several researchers from Women Research Institute (WRI) who used a feminist method. The case study on women workers, who migrated from the village to the city, and several challenges in the industrial world and the urban life was not only a means to gain a deeper understanding on the life struggles of women workers, but also an effort to reveal and draw attention to their inner voices. This essay does not only discuss the strategy of survival of women workers in the industrial relation context; but more than that – the association between them and consumptive behavior, organizational activities, and pragmatic issues in the city.


This study is based on several questions, namely how women workers free themselves from the agricultural world, how women workers adjust themselves to the industrial environment, what their strategies are to survive in metropolitan cities, and how women workers position themselves when they leave the village for the city. The context of surviving in cities is not only based on economy per se, but also on social cultural strategies that they develop. Therefore, the economic aspect, the social relation in terms of social capital, consumptive behavior and women’s lifestyle in the city should be understood in a more comprehensive manner. Everything is related and, therefore, difficult to be separated with one another. All this is of great importance to both academic interests and advocacy.

 


It is commonly known that a majority of advocacy pattern used today prioritizes the strategies of women workers, and is not based on the women's characters. Yet, their characters, formed by their long journeys from the village to the city, are largely adorned with survival efforts. To a certain degree, this formed an industrial sub-culture unique to women workers.

 

To overlook the women workers’ subculture while prioritizing the interests and agenda of another party will actually be contradictory to the workers’ interests. Moreover, we tend to recognize laborers as a social element placed in the relation of production per se, when in fact it is getting harder to differentiate the way of thinking and consumptive behavior of women workers from the other social classes. The women workers’ “lifestyle” appears to be increasingly similar with other social classes that sociologically dominate them. This can be observed from, for instance, their tendency to shop at grocery stores, repeatedly change cellphones, hang out with friends at the mall, and various other consumptive behavior in the context of modern society. WRI’s research team seeks to reveal all these phenomena in a descriptive manner. By using a “descriptive approach”, the character or behavior of women workers – be it at the workplace, residence, or public sphere – can be seen clearly. We will thus gain an empiric knowledge, which will provide a bigger space for interpretation in a wider context.

 

In the 1970s, the most dominant employment sector in developing countries was the agricultural sector. The total of male and female workers in this sector was fairly balanced. Yet in twenty years, the number of women working in the agricultural sector dropped significantly. The rural women’s level of education and the lack of skilled workers in rural areas are two sociological factors that contributed to the noteworthy decrease of women workers in this sector. Another factor is the shrinking agricultural land due to conversion of usage or distribution among the landowner’s descendants. In contrast, other sectors apart from agriculture experienced a rapid development. In India and Indonesia, for instance, the informal economic sector increased quite significantly. Nine from ten women are recorded to work outside the agricultural sector. Similar growth also occurred in Kenya (83%), Tunisia (40%), South Africa (30%), Bolivia (74%), Brasil (67%), Chile (44%), Colombia (44%), Costa Rica (48%), El Salvador (69%), Honduras (65%), Mexico (55%), Panama (41%), and Venezuela (47%) (United Nations, 2000: 122). Moreover, according to Tzannatos’ research (1998), the income ratio of women in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea experienced a considerable increase since late 1970s until early 1980s.

 

Table I
The Growth of Workforce in Indonesia, 1990-1998

Detail

1990

1997

1998

Growth (%)

1990-1996

1997-1998

Women

Employed

29.42

32.40

33.77

1.8

4.2

Domestic

18.79

25.36

24.67

4.0

-2.7

Men

Employed

46.43

53.01

53.90

2.2

-1.7

Domestic

0.26

0.54

0.60

5.9

11

Source: Sakernas, 1998

  

Table 1 shows that women’s involvement in the non-agricultural workforce market increased quite significantly since the beginning and the end of the 1990s. The diversification of employment that women undertook to improve their domestic economic condition had started since early 1980s, thus not due to the monetary crisis. Table 1 also shows that the growth of female workforce is higher than men’s. In 1990-1996, the average growth of working women was 1.8% and in 1997-1998, it increased to 4.2%. It is interesting to note that in 1997-1998, the percentage of domestic work, which is culturally done by women, was -2.7%. On the other hand, the percentage of men’s domestic work increased from 5.9% in 1990-1996 to 11% in 1997-1998. The economic implication is that women’s income also enhanced. Another interesting point is that the employment of workforce in the service sector and domestic industry was also dominated by women. Such phenomenon is often referred to as the “feminization” of the work sector which had been largely dominated by men in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the increase of men and women working in the industry sector is relatively balanced (BPS 2002: 47).


Apart from the feminization of the service sector and domestic industry, another conspicuous phenomenon is the shift or change in the character of workers in the agricultural sector. In the 1970s, when agriculture still dominated the employment sector, a majority of workers at this sector were members of the family who work on the agricultural production units. In other words, they are workers who were not paid in money as a majority of the production unit was cultivated to fulfill the family’s needs. The quality improvement as well as addition of facilities and education means at the subdistrict level since 1980 until the 1990s resulted in an extraordinary change, which is a devaluation of the agricultural sector’s value, which prompted and developed modern industry as a new hope for those who aim to leave the poverty trap of rural community.


Table II
Persentase Angka Kemiskinan Perdesaan dan Perkotaan di Indonesia

 

1990

1993

1996

1998

1999

Cities

16.8

13.5

9.7

21.9

20.0

Villages

14.3

13.7

12.3

25.7

25.9

Village + City

15.1

13.7

11.3

24.2

23.6

Sumber: International Labor Organization


If we observe the data in Table II, it is apparent that the poverty rate in villages in Indonesia appears to be worse than in the cities. In 1999, the poverty rate in villages increased almost double, to 25.9 percent from 14.3 percent in 1990. It is likely that the increase is closely related to the monetary crisis in Indonesia since 1997 until today. Sociologically, such crisis becomes a pressure for the rural people who constantly attempt to leave the agricultural sector, which they deemed as unprofitable – socially, economically, and culturally. As such, according to several case studies by WRI’s team, more opportunities occurred for rural women with secondary education to leave their villages. This means that a majority of the villagers, particularly women, as presented in this book, experienced a drastic change of status from their previous jobs as (traditional) cultivators, farmers, or owners of small shops to members of the working class, where they work at several industrial areas in the city.

 

The rapid growth of workforce at the urban industrial sector is certainly socially and politically loaded. In the 1970s, the number of those working at the industrial sector was “still” around 4.7 million, which increased to 5.8 million in 1980. In ten years (1990), it reached 8.2 million people (Hull in Bourchier, 1994). It was them who filled the political frame of labor in Indonesia in the 1990s, the era of the highly corporatic New Order regime. Student and non-governmental organization (NGO) movements also started to expand to the labor sector, encouraging the labor to become more independent and break away from the state corporation. They demanded the formation of labor unions beyond the ones under the All Indonesian Workers’ Union (SPSI), based on the assumption that the freedom to associate can improve their quality of life and provide laborers with a stronger bargaining power over the corporations.

 

Due to the changes in rural areas, both in their further urbanized thought pattern and their class status, the “cultural distance” between the village and the city is now more relative. For instance, villagers who have experienced living and working in the city would try hard to imitate and even change their respective houses to be like houses in big cities. They call such houses “Jakarta-style houses”. Their lifestyle would even become more “city-like”. However, in terms of economy, rural areas still face poverty issues. The relatively close distance is actually pushed by the urban economic growth. Not only was it accelerated by the accumulation of capital in the city, but it also triggered the rural community to immediately seek and choose a job in the city as a rational choice. This is because industrialization at this era plays a great role in every aspect of life of an individual, both in terms of economy and lifestyle.


Table III
Several Regional Indicators in Indonesia in 1999

Area

Percentage

of Land

Percentage

of Population

Population

Density

Poverty

Rate

Percentage

of Poor People

Sumatera

25

21

85

20

18

Jawa dan Bali

7

60

884

23

60

Kalimantan

28

6

19

20

5

Sulawesi

10

7

72

21

6

NTT, NTB, Maluku

30

6

20

44

11

Total

100

100

101

23

100

Source: Asian Development Bank 1999.

 

As presented in these essays, in 1992-1999, women left their hometowns to become industrial workers in the city. However, their cases must be placed in the context of the diminishing agricultural supporting resources in the villages. Table III shows that the increasingly imbalanced amount of population and the area of land such as in Java and Bali shows that the ecological capacity of their land has significantly declined. The poverty rate in that area was much higher compared to other places with larger areas, where population pressure is not yet an issue. Nevertheless, the Indonesian Government had chosen to implement industrialization and urbanization, which had been running since the 1970s (Budiman, 1995: 17). The policy encouraged people who had been struggling in the agricultural sector or living in villages to leave the burdening poverty trap and population pressure. Rural people may also realize that their income is far less than what they can gain in the city. Table IV shows that the average income in rural areas in 1990-1999 -– the period when the women in this book had become industrial workers -- was 8-9% lower than the income that can be gained in the city.

 

Table IV
Distribution of Income (GINI Index)

 

1990

1993

1996

1998

1999

Cities

34,0

33,0

36,0

33,2

32,6

Villages

25,0

26,0

22,0

25,6

24,4

Village + City

32,0

34,0

36,0

31,9

31,1

Source: International Labor Organization 

 

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