Factory Daughters by Diane L. Wolf

The commercialization of agriculture, increasing landlessness and the exploitation of an expanding labor class are the overriding themes of Factory Daughters.

Through the stories of individual women striving for independence, the author of this groundbreaking study clearly identifies and explains the unbelievably complex dynamics of class, gender and agrarian change wrought by industrialized capitalism in rural Java.

What is missing in most global academic surveys of factory labor is that the lives of the workers themselves are missing. Wolf takes the reader inside the very households where Javanese women live and onto the factories floors where they work, revealing the contradictions, constraints and profound changes in their lives as they seek income from non-agricultural activities in order to survive.

Wolf’s book is a blistering indictment of the Suharto regime when the government and factory owners flaunted labor laws that had been put in place for the protection of female workers. No other study deals exclusively with this subject in the Indonesian context. Almost comically repulsive is the venality of lurah (village heads) and carik (village secretary) – often ex-army or ex-police – in the buying and selling of land to factories.

Wolf’s research methods are a telling indication of the depth of her enquiry – 250 households in the pre-computer era without a tape recorder or questionnaire. Living in rat-scurrying dormitories reminiscent of scenes out of Marx’s Das Kapital, she and her Javanese assistants socialized at village food stalls, interviewed workers, managers and owners, examined personnel files and health records. In Java’s highly patriarchal society, husbands often distrusted leaving Wolf alone with her subjects, answering all questions directed at their wives and even accompanying them on walks in the author’s attempt to speak with the woman privately.

From the outset, I read the book for instruction and entertainment from the standpoint of a non-academic, less for its sociological insights and more for its portraits of tough and independent women torn from the pages of life. I skipped the dense empirical analysis, tables, statistical charts and paragraphs thick with scholarly shop talk like “occupational multiplicity” and “semi-proleterianized households.” Not particularly light reading, I mined the book for its nuggets.

Buried in the author’s analysis of data are detailed and highly personal profiles made even more eloquent and credible by Wolf’s spare literary style. The book’s very first heart wrenching story is of Rini who started to work in factories after she dropped out of school at 15 in 1978 is followed by many brief, dramatic stories of Tuminem, Suniwati, Mbak Temo, etc. most ending tantalizingly with the reader yearning to know what lay ahead.

What the author learned in the course of her research was not at all what she expected or was prepared for. Wolf assumed that Java’s factory daughters were Javanese versions of working daughters in the early decades of Europe’s industrialization. It didn’t take long before many of her misconceptions began to unravel. Some of her findings are enlightening and even startling:

*Industrial capitalism in rural Java is fueled by the subsistence production of poor, near landless households. Knowing well that worker’s wages are insufficient to cover full subsistence needs, factory owners deliberately choose a site with a full awareness of local conditions to keep wages down. Families, by providing lodging, services, free food and other goods to keep their daughters afloat, help keep factory wages down and factory profits up.

*Factory workers do not come from the very poorest families but from families that are able to get along with little or no return from a daughter’s labor. However, daughters contributed indirectly to family income by taking care of their own cash needs.

*Few young women sought factory employment to help out their families and their net contribution to family income was small. Instead, the reasons were social and economic, i.e. to be with friends, to seek higher social status and to avoid the hard work, heat and the dark complexions that come with working in the fields.

*Daughters take on factory jobs to have money to spend on themselves. Expenditures were often self-centered, even frivolous: long pants, cosmetics, bar of “luxury” scented bathing soap and savings in the arisan (rotating saving association).

*Protest about injustice or unsafe conditions which cause injury or death are often expressed by the worker’s only weapons: non-capitalist, passive aggressive but typically Javanese daughterly ways. They faint, succumb to mass hysteria and have seizures at the appearance of ghosts roaming the factory. Dukun (shaman) are sometimes called to exorcize evil spirits after accidents had occurred.

*Female employment has had a profound effect on the marriage patterns of women. Employment also increased the financial autonomy and level of control that factory women have over the choice of marriage partners. Factory employment frequently lengthens the period before a woman’s marriage. Young rural female factory workers are more likely to choose their marriage partners than those engaged in traditional village labor.

Indonesia’s still struggles mightily with workplace safety, widespread child labor and keeping children in school. Work conditions and labor practices are in many ways similar – and in some ways worse – than was the case 30 years ago. This was tragically spotlighted in October when three 14-year-old girls, along with 47 other workers, were burned to death in a fireworks factory explosion in Tangerang outside Jakarta. The girls’ parents could not afford to send their daughters to school beyond 6th grade, so they took full-time jobs packaging fireworks for Rp45,000 per day.

Photos in the book of spinning factories are reminiscent of factory floors at the turn of the 20th C. in England or in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory before the 1911 fire. Strikingly different from contemporary scenes of factory labor in Java, not a single jilbab head covering is evident. This was a more innocent time when Western dress was considered modern before the puritanical values of Wahabism had yet taken hold in Indonesia.

In conclusion, I thought Factory Daughters would be drier and overly academic, but it turned out to be carefully argued, eye-opening and unexpectedly readable. Without the overuse of sociological terminology, Wolf takes on a complex area of ethnographic study with style and zeal that overturns many of her own preconceived notions about impoverished rural peasant and factory life.

In Wolf’s empathetic and relentlessly systematic research, we peer intimately into the lives of spirited young women and are ultimately able to understand the impact that factory work has on poor women and their families. Factory Daughters is an important contribution to the comparative analysis of changing gender roles in Indonesia, of women’s work and household economies in developing countries and of the increasing landlessness, environmental damage and other tumultuous life-changing processes of industrialization that are happening all over the world.

Factory Daughters: Gender, Household Dynamics, and Rural Industrialization in Java by Diane L. Wolf, University of California Press 1992, ISBN: 978-052-008-6579, paperback, 338 pages.


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