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Modesto teen aims to shine light on Indonesian factory workers’ lives

A young woman rides the bus into the PT Nikomas factory in Tangerang, Banten.
A young woman rides the bus into the PT Nikomas factory in Tangerang, Banten. Teens in the Newsroom program

Modesto resident Zachary Senn, a junior at Thomas Edison State College, traveled to Indonesia in late November. He spent three weeks in Jakarta to document the lives of shoe factory workers in the industrial satellite cities outside the nation’s capital. The factories that employ the workers he interviewed produce goods for Nike, Converse, Puma and Adidas brands. This is the first in a series of three stories; the others will publish the next two Sundays.

The word “jihad,” translated literally, means “struggle.”

My first morning in Jakarta, the call to prayer awoke me at 4. Every day, five times a day, the call resonates simultaneously from the minarets of the city’s 1,000 mosques. The sound is loud and deep. It sweeps mournfully and slowly across the city. With it, thousands of the city’s faithful bow to the west, toward Mecca. It’s a beautiful sound. It fills the hot, heavy, humid air with something great – hope.

As I opened my eyes and looked at the light streaming through the dirty window, I returned once again to a struggle of my own. “What am I actually doing here?” I asked myself this for what must have been the thousandth time. I couldn’t help but wonder what my motivation in coming to Indonesia actually was. I wanted to think I had solely altruistic intentions, but deep down, I couldn’t help but doubt that. I have a borderline unhealthy relationship with airports. I crave adventure. When my international cellphone began to beep with the appointment time and meeting place for my first set of interviews, I realized that I’d have to do my best to figure this one out as I went along.

The city of Jakarta is a struggle in itself. Skyscrapers filled with Western designer boutiques and world-class malls are surrounded by some of the planet’s most notorious slums. During rush hour, it can take upward of three hours to get from one side of town to other, but a longer commute isn’t unusual. Jakarta smells bad. Sometimes the sidewalk disappears into a mound of burning trash or an open sewer. It’s strange to think that the eerie efficiency and cleanliness of Singapore lies only an hour’s flight north. Crossing the street and not being hit by a bajaj, one of the city’s podlike motorized rickshaws, seems like a miracle. The air, water and streets are inundated with their respective kinds of filth. As an English expat I met in Fatahillah Square told me, “No one lives in Jakarta. People just survive here.”

When I first met Ato (his last name has been withheld for his security) at his brother’s home in Karawang, West Java, he reminded me of myself. He’s 26 – just eight years older than I. When I spoke with Ato, his eyes lit up, and he appeared to weigh everything he was going to say. Ato is intelligent and easygoing. I asked him if he wanted me to change his name or conceal his face in photographs for protection; he told me not to, because he is “not a coward.” He seems to make, and keep, friends easily. Nearly 15 of them pulled up to the porch of his brother’s house to watch me interview him, bringing water and fruit and cigarettes to share. Ato can appear overly serious at first, but isn’t afraid to crack a joke with his buddies.

He used to be a Nike factory worker. Until he spoke out.

Nike doesn’t own or operate the factories in which its goods are produced. It subcontracts labor through a selection of corporations and shell companies, mostly based in China or Taiwan, which then construct and manage factories in developing nations such as Indonesia. A factory is rarely contracted out by a single shoe company. One I visited, PT Nikomas, produces goods for Nike, Adidas and Puma. Ato worked for the PT Chang Shin factory, which is in his hometown of Karawang, one of Jakarta’s industrial satellites. According to Ato, at the end of his employment, there were more than 11,000 employees at the Chang Shin location. There is talk among the current workers, however, that the number of employees has since exceeded 15,000.

“I entered the factory just because I needed a job. It was a newly established factory, so it looked promising.” Ato said, speaking through an interpreter. He and his mother sat opposite me on the rug laid out on the porch. She smiled and offered me a drink of water. Even at night, it was painfully hot in Jakarta.

Ato took a factory job for the same reason most people here do: a lack of other opportunities.

In the beginning, he said, the job wasn’t bad. After a year of operation, the workers began to organize and formed a union with the management’s approval. He said that initially, Nike dealt responsibly with issues that workers had with management.

“At first, if there was a problem in the subcon, we would send an email to Nike’s headquarters in Jakarta, and they responded quite well. … For example, once, management from Nike headquarters went into the factory pretending to be employees, to see what was really happening to the workers.”

But three months after the approved union was established, trouble began. “The factory said that the leader of the union must be changed. And they used their influence over the workers to choose a newly elected leader who was very close to the management.”

Ato became suspicious of the intentions of the new union leaders when they signed a paper saying the factory management didn’t need to pay the workers the full amount of unpaid overtime wages owed to them. “We felt very disappointed in the existing union because they did nothing about the gap of salary – we should have been paid 2,030,000 rupiahs, but instead, we just got paid 1,750,000 rupiahs.” That’s a difference of roughly $25 U.S. It may not seem like much, but when your monthly salary is less than $250, it can mean the difference of whether or not your children get to eat breakfast.

“We just wanted to make sure that we were being paid the minimum wage, but the corporation kept paying us lower. They (PT Chang Shin) told the government, ‘We don’t have enough money; our company isn’t that big.’” Nike’s response to issues in the factory also became lackluster, Ato said. “Now, if we sent any problems to the Nike headquarters, Nike will ask the factory management about the problem. Of course, the company will say that it’s not happening. It’s not directly through the workers, but through the management.”

In addition to not being paid the minimum wage, Ato and his fellow Chang Shin workers faced frequent verbal abuse and occasional physical abuse. “There’s a lot of verbal abuse, like shouting, and ‘The Zoo.’ … If you don’t work properly, one of the top management … will slap you in the back and force you to do the work.”

Every worker I talked with at Nikomas and Chang Shin spoke of “The Zoo.” This is what employees call the factory grounds because of the insults hurled at them by the management. Workers are routinely called pigs, monkeys, dogs and more. All of these are offensive in any culture, but from Indonesia’s Muslim worldview, calling a human by an animal’s name is borderline taboo. It is the epitome of verbal subjugation.

Ato began organizing a secondary union in September 2013. He and his fellow factory workers wanted to address the problems the management-approved union was refusing to acknowledge, or siding with the factory owners on. “I knew from the very start that it could have some dangerous risks, but my friends kept encouraging me and saying that they’d stand by me whatever the risks are. … We believe that we are right. So we don’t have to be afraid of anything.”

Members of Ato’s union quickly began to see discrimination toward them from factory management. If they requested to hold a demonstration or meet with management, the answer never came through. “If the request came from the other union, it was a few days, and the approval came. From our union, it didn’t come. … Because the company always took the side of the other union, we reported the company to the police for union busting. This was in the beginning of 2014. But then, after a week, it was us being reported to the police by the company. We kept on holding a demonstration. … The company then reported me to the police again for being provocative on Facebook.”

Ato’s employment was terminated after holding a demonstration outside the factory that the management claims damaged the gate and a lamp. His trial was still in progress in December, and he was not sure how long it would take for a verdict. “The charges that are now being presented to the court are because of the demonstration. It is for organizing a demonstration, and ‘causing chaos.’ The company doesn’t have a right to say that we were causing chaos, though, because we reported it to the police three days before.”

After he was fired, Ato set up a protest tent and lived outside the gates of the factory for four months, trying to direct attention to his plight. “Instead of (me) feeling threatened by Nike, I think that they and the management are feeling threatened by me and the union. Nike was supposed to visit the factory, just as a routine visit, but knowing that I was there, alone in my tent, the Nike representatives refused to enter the factory. So I don’t know to what degree they would go to (silence me), but that is how they react to me. In addition to the lawsuit, of course.” He added with a grin, “At least Nike is well aware of my protest.”

When I initially began research for this project, I contacted Ben Samples, a Nike press representative, asking for his input on my story. He emailed me that Nike cares for its employees’ welfare, and included a link to the company’s code of conduct.

When I asked Ato what he thought of the response, he said, “I think Nike’s code of conduct is so good, but I’m very disappointed. … They’re supposed to implement this code of conduct, but in fact, they don’t. I just wish that Nike would pay more attention to the subcons, so that they can treat their workers well. Because at the end, these workers are Nike’s workers. Even though we work with Chang Shin, eventually we are Nike workers, so the code of conduct should apply to us.”

Nike did not respond to a request for further comment, and attempts to talk with subcontractor factory management were unsuccessful.

For Ato, the future is uncertain. If he is convicted in court, he could face extremely heavy fines and possibly jail time. He is unaware of what exact sentencing he may face, but he worries of other repercussions regardless of what happens in the courtroom. “I feel it will be difficult to find a new job, because this case is quite big. … At the time, I was being interviewed by local and national media. … The word of mouth is spreading everywhere, so I feel that, yes, it will be difficult for me to find a new job. I am now jobless … and just doing anything I can that will help bring in money to my family.” By his family, he means his parents; Ato is unmarried and has no children.

He refuses to allow his current predicament change his beliefs, however. “I have no regrets whatsoever. Instead of being regretful, I am proud of myself. Because I stood for the right thing, the thing that I believe in. If I’m being asked, ‘Would you change the past to not experience all of the things that have happened?’ I will say, ‘no,’ because I am what I am. So right now, I am just going to go with the flow and see where it ends.”

For Ato himself, his main concern is ensuring his innocence. “I want to prove that everything that I have done is the right thing to do. I never did anything wrong. I just want to prove it. The situation is getting very hard for me.” He holds on to hope for his union’s future, however. It is currently being led by a friend of his who is still employed with Chang Shin, and he says that overall, conditions in the factory are improving. “I’m hoping that my friends who are still working in the factory can continue the struggle for the welfare of the workers. I’m hoping they won’t be intimidated by the management. I’m hoping that they will continue the struggle.”

Xxxxxxxx

Modesto student Zachary Senn traveled to Indonesia in late November. He spent three weeks in Jakarta to document the lives of shoe factory workers in the industrial satellite cities outside the nation’s capital.

The factories that employ the workers he interviewed produce goods for Nike, Converse, Puma and Adidas brands. This is the first in a series of three stories; the others will publish the next two Sundays.

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