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Women take on a greater role in the union, despite challenges

8 Mar 2022

UNGARAN, Indonesia – Sri Tentrem smiled broadly as she shared her story about her experience working in labour unions. She wore a sky-blue vest emblazoned with a bold “SPN,” the abbreviation for her union, on the left side, accompanied by a red-and-white Indonesian flag on the right.

Tentrem has been the trade union’s vice-chairperson at a garment factory in Ungaran, Central Java, since 2018. She has been a part of the union since 2006 and has been involved in union movements throughout the years to give voice to workers’ rights.

Even though she plays an important role in the union, Tentrem is part of a minority. Even though most workers in the garment industry are women, there are only nine women among the 30 union managers.

The problem of unequal representation is not a new one. A Global Gender Strategy Report by Better Work Indonesia cited evidence showing that women are systematically excluded from participation in labour unions, even though women workers make up 90 percent of the workforce in the Indonesian garment industry.

The ILO’s 2021 “Moving the Needle” report explains, “Systemic gender gaps are also evident within social dialogue institutions and processes that bring governments, employers and workers together across the economy at national and sector levels.”

Research shows that in social dialogue institutions, like labour unions, female membership ranges from about 20 – 35 per cent.

While Tentrem is in the minority as a woman vice-chairperson, she has learned to manage her unique role and its demands. She has learned to follow the standard operating procedures agreed upon between management and the union, as well as how to manage her time between work and organizing activities allow her to effectively participate in union activities.

Time management is another balancing act.  The mother of three children has to manage their supervision, even when she is at work or attending to union responsibilities. She relies on her mother and mother-in-law to help watch the children, and she juggles dropping her eldest two children at school and her youngest at childcare before her workday begins. As a mother, there is a cultural expectation of Tentrem to take care of her children during off-days, despite her other professional obligations.

“If there are trainings on weekends, I still participate and set aside money to buy them food and treats so that they won’t be upset the next day,” said Tentrem. She also asks her husband to go home early to take care of the children during those days. It is a constant balancing act.

In the future, she hopes her workplace could provide an additional allowance for employees on top of the minimum wage, since the factory no longer employs overtime labour during the pandemic. Without overtime pay, it is more difficult to make ends meet for many workers, or pay for childcare when they have conflicting priorities. She also pushed the company to implement a wage structure that rewards workers depending on their skills and other factors.

Tentrem hopes the government will reconsider the appropriate minimum wage – a crucial focus of current union negotiations. She said the last minimum wage increase in the district of Semarang, Central Java, was just 0.37 percent, or Rp 8,457. The average increase nationally was roughly 1 percent.

The issue of minimum wage adjustments has been heavily contested by the labour movement with rallies and strikes erupting at the end of 2021.

“After such a struggle under the rain and sun, the increase was only that much. The minimum wage in Central Java is very low, while investments seem to be rampant. I reject the cheap wage in Central Java,” said Tentrem with conviction. Unions in Indonesia continue to fight for improved labour standards for themselves and their coworkers, even though progress is slow.

Tentrem participated in many worker-led protests. She and other labour unions held a meeting with employers and the government at the end of last year to negotiate the rate, but she said the trade unions were disappointed in the negotiated increase.

“There are a lot of reasons why I joined the union. I needed support and wanted other people by my side, because if I took action by myself, I didn’t think my voice would be heard,” she said. “Through a union, our voices are more likely to be heard.”

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