Slave labour at Ivanka Trump’s clothing factory in Indonesia? Not really
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Slave labour at Ivanka Trump’s clothing factory in Indonesia? Not really

INDONESIA often makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons and not always deservedly so.

The latest case in point is the recent spate of articles denouncing a factory in Subang in West Java called PT Buma which makes clothing for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. Criticism abounds of “poverty pay”, staff being penalised for menstruating and families who can’t afford to live with their children.

Is it fair to say factory work in Indonesia is tantamount to slave labour? Not really.

To first understand the fate of factory workers in Indonesia, you need to unpick the meaning of the “minimum wage” which, like all parts of Indonesian law, is unnecessarily complex.

Minimum wage in Indonesia comes in two forms. One is upah minimum provinsi (the provincial regional wage) and the other is upah minimum kabupaten (the minimum wage assigned to each regency within a province).

In West Java, the province where Subang is located, the provincial minimum wage is IDR1.4 million (US$105) per month. In Subang, the regency that contains PT Buma, the minimum wage for 2017 is IDR2.3 million (US$173) per month. This means factory workers’ wages in Subang are far higher than the set provincial minimum wage for West Java.

When you look at in context, IDR2.3 million isn’t bad at all. It is not the lowest minimum wage in West Java. Actually, it’s one of the highest.

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But PT Buma has been criticised for more than just its pay packets, with one monetary policy in particular drawing scorn. This relates to female employees who are awarded a monthly bonus if they do not take time off work while menstruating.

The policy is both misunderstood and entirely fair.

Time off for staff members who are menstruating is common practice in Indonesia and is known as cuti haid (period holiday). To understand it properly, context is crucial.

What happens if a female employee at PT Buma takes one day off for cuti haid every month and another female employee does not? It means the second female employee will work 12 extra days in the factory per year.

Under the policy at PT Buma, she is (rightly) awarded a bonus for this extra work. Notice the first female employee does not have her pay docked if she calls in sick. She can just take a day off when she is menstruating with no questions asked, a reason for absence that would not be readily entertained in many Western companies. Rather than being a draconian financial penalty, cuti haid is actually refreshingly progressive.

And what if the first female employee wants to work and can’t because she has extremely painful periods, perhaps due to some underlying medical condition? Well, under the factory’s healthcare plan she can go to a doctor and seek treatment.

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Time off for staff members who are menstruating is common practice in Indonesia. Source: Shutterstock/Khairul Effendi

PT Buma has been made to sound bad, but its minimum wage and paid sick days point to it being one of the better employers in West Java. In an illuminating comment during the interview with the Guardian, one of the workers, Ahmad, appears to admit this is true:

“We don’t like Donald Trump’s policies. But we’re not in a position to make employment decisions based on our principles.”

Basically, if there was a better deal on the table he would take it. There isn’t.

In contrast to those at PT Buma, around 53 percent of workers in Indonesia are self-employed. They don’t have an employer-funded healthcare plan or paid holidays. If they can’t go to work, for whatever reason, then they don’t make any money that day. Factory work, on the other hand, provides a secure base wage and a number of other support systems like three months’ paid maternity leave.

This is not to say factory work is a wholly idyllic employment prospect. By all accounts, it is dull, monotonous and relentless, with staff being pushed to work harder and faster to meet their targets. It is also fair factory staff should be able to ask for more money, even if they are not being awarded “poverty pay”.

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But how much more? University graduates in Indonesia usually make a starting salary of around IDR3 million (US$225) a month, so a factory-level job classified as unskilled labour is entirely reasonable by comparison.

PT Buma is not nearly as bad as it sounds, but there is no doubt Indonesian factories can do better. Do these factories have fire safety equipment in place? Do they employ underage workers? Are employees given statutory breaks? Are all health and safety practices being followed?

Change must also come from the unions who need to be better organised and equipped to represent the rights of employees. Workers need to be trained to understand Indonesian labour law. Sanctions must be put in place for factories that prevent workers from joining unions or from demanding better working conditions.

But we should not exaggerate the struggles of minimum wage-earners.

Instead, the government urgently needs to look at improving the conditions of workers in all employment sectors across Indonesia. This needs to be done in line with the minimum wage, the cost of living in Indonesia and the numbers of residents living in poverty, which is now 27.7 million.

That’s right. In 2017, 27.7 million Indonesians live in poverty because they earn under the official poverty line put in place by the Indonesian government which is US$27 per month or 82 cents per day. The global poverty line is US$1.90 per day. A reminder: the workers at PT Buma earn US$172 a month.

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And even if that still sounds low, the reality is that minimum wage workers in Indonesia are not being paid “poverty pay”. And those words matter. They matter because it is offensive to pretend minimum wage workers do not receive an adequate salary when 27.7 million Indonesians live in poverty every single day. They are not lucky enough to work in a financially secure job in a factory with a famous client to elicit sympathy.

Change must come. But it will not come by attacking Ivanka Trump, a woman so mired in scandal that allegations of a sweatshop in Indonesia are nothing more than a drop in the ocean of controversy that surrounds her.

If we really want change, we need to stop pitying those who earn a liveable wage and start giving a voice to all those who don’t.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent