Challenges abound for families of Indonesian shoe factory workers

Indonesian factory worker R.M. comforts her ill daughter at their home in Tangerang.
Indonesian factory worker R.M. comforts her ill daughter at their home in Tangerang. Zachary Senn

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 second in a series of three stories; the final part will publish next Sunday.

I lay down on the concrete floor and tried to cover myself from the swarming mosquitoes that circled beneath the corrugated tin roof. The concrete-block room was too small for me to stretch out my legs, so I curled up in a fetal position, half hoping that would protect me from the bugs crawling on me. My host lit a coil of citronella incense, brought me a stained pillow, smiled and told me goodnight. I set my head down on the pillow and stared up at the single light bulb that hung from the ceiling.

The heat was oppressive, the air stagnant. Droplets of moisture formed all over my body. When I closed my eyes, I felt suffocated by the temperature and smell and hardness of the floor and the overwhelming dampness. After a few minutes, I heard rats fighting somewhere nearby. I dared to peek just as a large pink tail disappeared into the shadows. A lizard darted across the ceiling.

Somewhere nearby, beyond the walls, a child started coughing – a low, throaty, whooping cough. I rolled over and jammed my elbow into the rough wall. I opened my eyes again to view the plastic, heart-shaped wall clock, which contained a faded photograph of my host’s husband and their oldest daughter. It was only 12:48 a.m.

It was going to be a long night.

My host, R.M. – who asked to be identified only by her initials due to security concerns – is an employee with the PT Nikomas factory in Tangerang, Banten Province, Indonesia. PT Nikomas, which with 25,000 employees is one of Southeast Asia’s largest garment producers, manufactures goods for Nike, Adidas and Puma. R.M. had invited me to stay in her home with her and her family so I could experience their living conditions.

We left Jakarta early on a Friday morning for Tangerang. There was something I wanted to search for on my way to R.M.’s house.

I had heard of the factory burn piles. After asking some local farmers for directions, we located one. It was a large clearing off a small dirt road, and it stank of burned rubber. A sickly kitten patrolled the heaps of shoe scraps, looking for insects to eat.

The piles are scrap materials from the garment factories. Excess shoe rubber, fabric, laces, wholly formed soles and other assorted pieces are dumped and later set on fire, according to reports from villagers who live near a second site we visited.

Sections of shoes were everywhere, creeping into the surrounding jungle and rice fields. After I snapped some photos at the first site, I set out in search of another. Within a few hours, I had been to five such burn piles. The countryside is dotted with them.

At the final site we visited, junkers were sifting through the fabrics and loading the rubber material into a massive dump truck. They were taking the rubber to be burned as fuel at a nearby silicone factory. They informed us that they received 50,000 rupiahs, or slightly less than $4 U.S., per truckload.

After our exploration of the burn sites, we arrived at R.M.’s home. She and her husband live in one of Tangerang’s industrial neighborhoods with their two daughters, ages 10 and 2. The stark, rough walls of their house are covered in drawings and a few school reports. A single outlet connected a power strip to an aged TV set and a single light bulb, which dangled from the tin ceiling. On top of a small shelf in the corner sat an award from their mosque for participation in a religious celebration.

The couple’s children previously lived with their grandmother in Yogyakarta, more than nine hours away on the other side of Java, until she was no longer able to care for them. Now, R.M.’s husband stays at home to take care of the children and occasionally does electrical wiring work for his friends and neighbors to supplement the family’s meager income.

“Right now, we don’t have anyone to take care of them, so my husband does. … Of course, I worry. My husband is supposed to go and get a job, but he can’t because he has to take care of the children. I should take care of them. But if I’m not working, then they don’t have anything to eat.”

As she poured me a cup of tea, R.M. talked of conditions that factory workers at PT Nikomas previously had been subjected to, from forced unpaid overtime and physical punishment to being fed spoiled food. Factory shifts are supposed to be 10 hours, five days a week, then five hours on the sixth day. But R.M. said workers routinely were not being paid for additional hours they were made to work each day.

“Since Jim’s campaign … things are getting better. There’s less yelling and calling bad names. … I work in the sewing section, and I’m expected to process 100 shoes per hour. If we don’t meet our quotas, we just get yelled at. Before, they’d be using hands, everything. But now, we just get yelled at. And then the quotas are piled into the next day.”

“The company gives one meal a day, and back then, there were maggots in it sometimes. Now, it just smells bad. There are no longer maggots, but we still can hardly eat it because it stinks. … Also, in the past, we had to work an extra two hours without pay. … But now, because of Jim, we are getting back pay.”

“Jim” is Jim Keady, an American labor rights activist who has spent much of the past decade organizing and educating Nike factory workers. He’s a founding director of a group called Educating for Justice, and he was kicked out of Indonesia last May for joining workers at a protest of union-busting activities at Nike’s Jakarta headquarters.

According to The Huffington Post, Keady’s work has been featured on CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, MSNBC, CNN, HBO Sports, ESPN, the BBC, NPR, WBAI, as well as in The New York Times, Newsday, Sports Illustrated and countless other local radio programs and print outlets. A New Jersey resident and businessman, Keady has filed the paperwork to run as a Democrat for Assembly in the state’s 30th District.

Nothing short of a celebrity among the community of factory employees, Keady is seeking permission to re-enter the country.

Despite efforts by Keady, other activists and the workers, there is more to be done. PT Nikomas now provides its employees with fire safety training, but job safety training is nonexistent, workers say. Attempts to contact management for comment for this report were unsuccessful.

“We only receive fire training,” R.M. said. “Because I work in the sewing section, my biggest risk is to get my hands cut by the needle, and there’s no instruction on how to avoid an accident.” Such accidents, she said, are frequent.

As for their back pay, “When we filed for (it), the management gathered us all into one place,” R.M. said. “We had to fill out a form stating how many years we had been cheated, and the supervisor told us all to not file for the correct amount. They told us to just get a little bit, because if it’s too big, then the company would move to another country, like Vietnam.”

Workers at PT Nikomas say they are given an hour break each day to eat and pray. However, conditions at the factory often prevent the break from being enjoyed. “Each building only has one restroom, with 15 stalls, for 850 women,” R.M. said. “So at break time, we queue for the toilet first, and then there is little time left to eat or pray.”

Still, conditions overall have improved considerably for the employees, said R.M., since Keady’s assistance in labor organizing. However, she added, there are still problems yet to be addressed. “Nike is a big brand. They can have (soccer great Cristiano) Ronaldo and Tiger Woods as their ambassadors. For me, a decade of working for them isn’t even one of their contracts. Of course it needs to be improved.”

Nike has given assurances it will be. The world’s largest sporting-goods maker has warned its contract manufacturers to adhere to labor and sustainability standards or risk losing its business. The Beaverton, Ore.-based company is giving more importance to worker benefits and safety in its grading system for factories, it said in a statement a few years back. Nike, which makes more than 90 percent of its shoes in Vietnam, China and Indonesia, wants all factories it uses to meet the increased standards by 2020.

“We will be moving away from companies that are not committed to putting workers and sustainability at the heart of their growth agendas,” said Hannah Jones, vice president of sustainable business and innovation at Nike, in a May 2012 interview with Bloomberg Business. “There are new rules of engagement.”