The Plight of Indonesia’s Homeworkers

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The Plight of Indonesia’s Homeworkers

Indonesian homeworkers are engaging in collective action to gain legal recognition, but it’s an uphill battle.

The Plight of Indonesia’s Homeworkers
Credit: Pixabay

When one hears the word “home work” or “homeworker,” images of a child working on a math project after school or an entrepreneur on a conference call at home might come to mind.

In fact, home work is a specific category of employment and homeworkers are one of the least visible and most vulnerable groups in Indonesian society. The definition of home work and the rights of homeworkers are detailed in a dedicated international legal instrument: The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 177.

Homeworkers, often confused with domestic workers, make up a significant but poorly understood part of the global economy.

As forces of globalization strengthen, businesses seek to maintain competitive advantage, and widespread underemployment continues, Indonesian homeworkers are increasingly forming important but undervalued links in national and global supply chains.

Homeworkers often ply their labors in unsafe conditions, working long hours and without legal protections or job security, for payment generally far below a decent wage.

Irham Saifuddin, program officer at the Indonesia Office of the ILO, explained that the work has a gendered element to it.

“It is a very female-dominated sector, and the women homeworkers are usually in very vulnerable situations with the home work that they are doing the only employment opportunities they have,” he said.

These women are generally paid on a piece-rate basis and engaged to produce components in a range of goods that include food products, footwear, clothes, and sporting equipment. Homeworkers may be invisible as a workforce, but the products they create can be seen all around us.

“They are engaged in similar work to factory laborers, only they do the work at their homes meaning they aren’t recognized as workers by the business or government” said Evania Putri, communications officer at the Trade Union Rights Center (TURC), an organization that is fighting for the legal acknowledgement of homeworkers in Indonesia.

Although there are some NGOs and development programs supporting homeworkers in the field, it is the workers themselves who are the leading the struggle to demand the fulfilment of their rights.

Across the country, homeworkers are engaging in collective action by forming workers’ groups and labor unions. Organizing is a way to build solidarity amongst their ranks, develop skills, and create platforms from which they can strengthen their bargaining position to negotiate for improved employment conditions.

Research commissioned by the Australia–Indonesia Partnership for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (MAMPU Program) and conducted by the SMERU Research Institute in 2017 demonstrates that participation in collective action also increases women homeworkers’ access to social protection programs.

Ana Rosidha Tamyis, a researcher with SMERU who worked on the qualitative element of the study, explained the benefits of collective action for homeworkers.

“Some of the women homeworkers who were not members of organizations had tried to negotiate individually for their labor rights but when they join organizations and coordinate with other homeworkers, these negotiations become more effective and efficient,” she said.

The MAMPU Program works with and supports local partners — including TURC— to empower women homeworkers and assist them to form organizations. Since 2015, MAMPU Partners have assisted over 4,400 women homeworkers to form 290 groups.

One of the women that has been reached by the program is Nuning Pudjiastuti, a homeworker of five years who was a candidate in the recent general elections, running for a seat in the Surakarta Legislative Council (DPRD). “If elected I want to create policies that increase the welfare of homeworkers and register them with the Workers Social Security Agency (BPJS Ketenagakerjaan),” said Nuning through WhatsApp.

She explained that taking part in training sessions facilitated by TURC provided her with important knowledge about gender equality, community organizing, workplace safety, and policy advocacy.

Nuning is no longer engaged in home-based work but she continues to advocate for homeworkers’ rights and remains active in homeworker organizations such as the Indonesian Network of Homeworkers (JPRI).

JPRI was established in May 2018 and currently operates in seven provinces across the islands of Java and Sumatra. Lisna Nasution is the chairperson of the network, and she also works from day to day as a homeworker in North Sumatra.

“The aim of the organization is to unite in the goal of obtaining legal recognition and protection, and fight for the rights of women homeworkers,” said Lisna.

Despite the many positives that stem from collective action, the process is not always straightforward and it can bring risks for the women involved. Ahmad Vauzi, program officer at TURC, elaborated on how he has witnessed some of these risks manifest.

“There was one experience with a community [of homeworkers] in East Java who formed a union and the company [they worked for] found out. In the end, all of the members of this community weren’t provided with any more work and the company just moved its contract to a different community,” he said.

“This shows the difficulty of advocacy because on one hand these women had already claimed that they were a union and registered as a union but on the other hand they weren’t even officially acknowledged as workers and in the end they all lost their jobs.”

Een works as a part-time homeworker in North Jakarta folding and gluing paper bags for a local fast food chain. On average she earns 100,000 Indonesian rupiahs ($7) a week. She explained that the fear of being found out by their bosses makes some women hesitant to join organizations.

“Some of the women are scared that if they are seen to demand too much then they won’t be given any more work. The bosses can do whatever they want,” Een said.

While collective action and community organizing by homeworkers is fundamental to ensuring better employment outcomes, the women in the sector urgently need legal recognition and protection that will guarantee their right to freedom of assembly and to form unions without risking their livelihoods.

In 2018 TURC, with the support of a coalition of NGOs, presented the Labor Ministry with a Draft Ministerial Regulation that, when passed, will provide some of the much-needed protections for homeworkers. The draft regulation mandates the provision of formal work contracts and minimum wages by employers; it also sets out dispute resolution mechanisms and guarantees the right of homeworkers to organize and form unions without fear of unfair dismissal.

“We submitted the Draft Regulation to the Ministry at the end of last year. This year we continue to lobby for it and to train homeworkers themselves in carrying out policy advocacy,” said Vauzi from TURC.

Even with legal protection, the vulnerabilities homeworkers face will continue if the companies that engage them do not begin taking responsibility to ensure decent working conditions for those producing for them.

Long and complex supply chains give big brands the ability to claim ignorance that their products are made by homeworkers employed through exploitative practices. However, companies have a moral responsibility, if not yet a legal one, to ensure that all workers engaged in the productions of their goods enjoy decent and dignified working conditions.

Jack Britton is a writer, translator, and development consultant currently living in Jakarta, Indonesia.