Indonesian factory workers’ universal goal: Better lives for their kids

Sutikna and Dewi hold a picture of their daughter, who lives on the other side of Java with her grandmother. I’m missing my daughter so much. We see her about four times a year,” he said.
Sutikna and Dewi hold a picture of their daughter, who lives on the other side of Java with her grandmother. I’m missing my daughter so much. We see her about four times a year,” he said. For The Modesto Bee

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 last in a series of three stories.

“I am afraid that my daughter will not recognize me as her father.”

Sutikna held up the framed photograph of his 3-year-old child as his wife, Dewi, looked wistfully at it.

“Of course I worry about her,” he added, speaking through a translator. “I work on saving the money so we can go to visit her. … I’m missing my daughter so much. We see her about four times a year.”

Sutikna and Dewi are employed at the PT KMK Global Sports factory in Tangerang, Indonesia. They and an estimated 14,000 others produce goods for Nike and Converse brands. They met and fell in love in the factory, where Sutikna works in the pressing sector and Dewi works in cutting.

Sutikna, 29, once dreamed of entering the automobile industry. “I used to study automobile technology in high school. After I graduated, I wanted to find a job in the automobile industry. But at that time, KMK had the job openings, so I applied, just because I needed money.” That was nine years ago.

Dewi and Sutikna’s daughter lives with her grandmother in Yogyakarta, a full day’s journey from Tangerang. “She has to be with her grandmother because there is no one around to care for her here. Sometimes, we work on the same night shifts. … It is very difficult to find someone to watch her,” Sutikna said.

Sutikna expressed his hope that one day, his daughter may face a better future. “I want my child to be a white-collar worker. I’m focusing on saving my money to get my child a better education than I had.”

Dewi, 27, adds that she doesn’t want her to daughter to follow in her footsteps. “I don’t want her to have the same experience as me – a tired, blue-collar worker who doesn’t have enough time to even care for my own daughter. I don’t want that to happen to my kids.”

Life on the factory floor is hard, Sutikna said. “Our quota is approximately 120 shoes per day, unless it is one of the kind that is more difficult to make. … It used to be that until you met your quota, you weren’t allowed to go home.”

But conditions have begun to improve in the past year, he said. “It’s because I started a union last year. The union started to make people brave. … So now, we will begin to talk eye-to-eye with the management.”

Sutikna started organizing his union when the existing, factory-approved union signed an affidavit stating that the factory didn’t have to pay its workers the national minimum wage. The theory is that an open factory that’s paying less than minimum wage is better than a closed factory that doesn’t pay anything at all. “We received only 2 million (rupiah), when we are supposed to receive 2 million and 300,000,” Sutikna said. “So the first aim of our second union was to receive the minimum wage.”

After our dinner at Dewi and Sutikna’s home, we walked across the street to the home of one of their co-workers and a fellow member of Sutikna’s union.

Giyarso, 30, has been working at the factory since he was 19. Despite his 12 years there, he still doesn’t consider his position in the factory as his occupation. “I don’t consider this job to be a full career. I’m now still in good shape, but after years to come, who knows? How am I supposed to give a proper education to my children if the salary is just what it is? I can barely save any money. I just work at the company because there is nowhere else to turn to.”

Giyarso’s home is nearly identical to that of Sutikna and Dewi’s. When we dropped in to visit at about 8 p.m. with Dewi, Sutikna and half-dozen of their neighbors in tow, Giyarso’s wife still was at work at a noodle stand. He was playing with his young son, who had spent the day with his mother at the noodle stand.

For Giyarso, it was payday, and he produced us a slip to show his earnings. “I make 2,644,000 rupiahs per month – it’s just not sufficient. … I have to pay 1.4 million rupiahs per month toward the house, which doesn’t leave very much toward food and education for the children.” His monthly pay, 2.6 million rupiahs, is equivalent to $212 U.S.

In addition to low wages, Giyarso spoke of safety concerns. “In 2013, an accident happened. … The fuel that they use to heat the rubber is stored all in one place, and that place exploded. One person died – the operator – because of the explosion. There’s no safety training, so when something like that happens, we don’t know what to do.”

Attempts to talk with factory management for this series were unsuccessful. A Nike press representative was contacted for this series, who emailed me that Nike cares for its employees’ welfare, and included a link to the company’s code of conduct. Nike did not respond to a request for further comment.

As Giyarso talked about the safety conditions, Sutikna ran home. He returned with a pair of the work gloves he and Giyarso are given by the factory management. The knit gloves were riddled with holes.

Said Sutikna, “It’s very dangerous, because the press is so hot, and the gloves are not rubber. … It’s too thin, so we have to wear the right and the left one on the same hand. If we just wore one on each hand, it’s so hot, it would be burning. Sometimes it’s so hot, I work only in underwear.”

Giyarso hopes for a more fulfilling life for himself and his son. “I want to start my own small business and become an entrepreneur. I don’t know what business to start, but right now my wife works in a noodle stall, so maybe that will be our choice. … I want my son to be someone who is useful to other people. It’s difficult to be useful if you just work in the factory.

“I don’t rule what he’s going to be; it’s up to him. But hopefully he won’t be a factory worker.”

The day I left Jakarta, I departed from my guesthouse at 4 a.m. to catch my flight to Kuala Lumpur. As my cab pulled up to the airport, the call to morning prayer could still be heard off in the distance. It was soon drowned out by the equally mournful drone of a jet engine. As I waited in line for emigration, I thumbed through the copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” that I keep in my backpack:

“We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad.”

My mind flashed back to the night spent staring at the single light bulb hanging from the corrugated tin sheet that was the roof of another host’s home.

My turn in line came. A quick glance at my passport, the sound of a staple being removed and a stamp being put in its place, and I no longer was in Indonesia. The airport was sterile, as every airport is. I walked briskly past the typical duty-free goods and fast-food fare. I wanted to see a window – I wanted to see Indonesia one last time. Instead, I saw just another runway.

When I take someone’s photograph, I take something that I could never give back. When I sit on the floor of their house and eat their food after spending the past two hours hearing about how they can barely feed their children, I take something irreplaceable. When I spend hours sitting with them, asking them to talk about how they worry about their 3-year-old daughter who’s been sent to live on the other side of the country, I am taking something that I can’t even understand.

When I sleep on the concrete floor of their house, trying not to think of the rats clicking near my head, and trying even harder not to think of the fact that they have to deal with them every single night, I have taken the purest form of welcome and hospitality and heartbreak. The only thing I can try to do is tell their stories.