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Female Workers’ Portraits in Palm Oil

Foto by Suwardi/SawitFest 2021
Female Workers’ Portraits in Palm Oil

InfoSAWIT, JAKARTA - Indonesia has the widest palm oil plantations in the globle. Data from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2019 showed that mature plantations in Indonesia laid about 11,75 million hectares (ha) or 49,5% of the total plantations in the word which laid about 23,74 ha.

Plantation sub sector contributed to gross domestic product (GDP) about 3,47% in 2017 or the first rank in agriculture, livestock, hunt, and agricultural service sectors (Central Bureau of Statistic 2018). The numbers make palm oil as one most desirable business and make the government notice the industry for contributing much to economic nationally.

The successful development by palm oil plantation industries has something to do with the workers’ empowerment process. It is undeniable that female workers take parts in the work but they are marginalized by social and cultural concepts. Discrimination which tends to corner always happens to female workers in life work and their daily life. They get violence, unfairness, sex abuse, and exploitation.

As a matter of fact, female workers have the same rights to get available access. Data from Human Development Reports Work United Nations Development Program (UNDP) (2013) revealed that Indonesia was in 108th of 187 countries where female gender was the last to get rights or access in public services. Development as form of female empowerment is needed as the solution to escalate their welfare.

Pratiwi (2020) mentioned, work dimension and life worth are important aspects to study in work issues but in the context of palm oil plantation workers, the work and life worth studies are not enough to know their economy because there are layers; condition and background that influence and significantly indicate their welfare levels, such as, their empowerment in their social and work environment. That is why by the presence of industrialization, such as, palm oil industries, the development is not only about economy but also more than that, it is about confession, strengthening, and protection namely for the female workers in the industry. The question remains, have they been empowered?

Still from Pratiwi (2020), though male and female contribute to palm oil plantation industry, there are some forms of gender segregation. Beside work status, salary, kinds of work in the plantation between the two gender, there are labels to form and make ‘female works’ and ‘male works’.

Decent work and life levels for female workers in the parts are important to analyze in empowerment level indicator to notice life condition and other issues – one to another. It means, female workers face not only one issue and about economy only, but also multi-dimension and interaction one to another.

Multi-dimension issues, class, identity, gender, age, and ethnic that palm oil plantation workers face, deliver many different impacts from each identity. Based on gender, female workers in palm oil plantations face specific issues which happen for social construction on gender identity which is manifested in their work as workers.

Female and male work condition in palm oil plantations is almost the same. They should face difficult topography and have no complete and good work tools. This situation gets worse by the wide palm oil plantation geography in the remote areas and they and their families always live in isolated areas with limited social mobility and access of information which eventually lead them to highly depend on company (where they work at) though they live in less good (life) situation.

The tough geography, isolated location of work, minimal access of information and public facilities make female workers in palm oil plantations are vulnerable to get rights abuse and they are hopeless. This gets more clearer by the system of patriarchy which leads to decide and gender bias attitude. These lead female gender struggle harder to get a position. Though not every female is in the scheme and work position, but it is important to know deeper study about such condition.

Female workers in palm oil plantations have specific social, economic, and political condition both in work and policy. They are marked by many things about work mechanism, starting from work relationship, welfare facility, rights to get union, social protection, political status as villagers in one region. It means, the research focused on two political identities in general, they are, female workers in palm oil plantations as work class and female workers as villagers/parts of society in one region.

Normative rights, rights to association and protection for female workers in palm oil plantations are regulated in many regulations. The things are regulated not only in Regulation Number 13 / 2003 about Employment, but also Regulation No. 39 / 2014 about Plantation. Besides, female workers in palm oil plantations as parts of worker class also do have the same to rights of association and industrial connection settlement is guaranteed in Regulation Number 21 / 2000 about Association and Regulation No. 2 / 2004 about Industrial Relation Dispute Settlement.

After Indonesia got its independence, slavery in North Sumatera had been forgotten both in Netherland and Indonesia. This is the same with Minasny (2020) which claims that slavery trade in colonialism in Indonesia is not available anymore namely in North Sumatera which happened 150 years ago when Netherland (Colonia) involved in human trafficking to get plantation workers which was called contract labors.

This raised continuous poverty for generations. This is known by an impact that contract labors really happen until now and their descendants still live around plantations and they always get the stigma ‘contract labors’.

North Sumatera is now famous as plantation region. But the legacy of Colonial plantation system still runs. Every plantation has administrator, field assistant, foreman, and workers which are famously called labor. Though the workers are no longer attached by contract, their salary numbers are minimal. But female workers get some advantages, such as, social guarantee from the company to fulfil their old days.

Life and decent salary that every worker should have are regulated by constitution. But the two are differently interpreted by management interests in almost palm oil plantation companies. The major and general issues in palm oil plantation workers are work status, industrial connection, work safety and health, health, minimal salary, and high work target and kinds. In salary, according to Regulation No. 13 / 2003 about Employment, the workers get their salary according to time and / or outcome unity.

Every female worker getting higher target and outcome will get premium salary which is differently paid according to what she does, and premium is calculated by what someone achieved per hectare. Palm oil production is one unity of many same important kind of work and it depends on one to another. This could be said, every kind of work in palm oil plantations is a circulation and cycle which cannot be separated one to another in anytime. (*)


By: Ahmad Rinaldy Siregar


Nominator Sawit Fest 2021 Kategori Lomba Esai / this article has been edited. The real title is Nestapa Pekerja Perempuan Industri Perkebunan Kelapa Sawit (Social Study about Female Worker Empowerment in North Sumatra); for more details, please go to SAWIT FEST 2021  


About Sawit Fest :

Sawit Fest 2021 supported to escalate palm oil literacy for the people in public and young generations in special to deliver whole description about palm oil industries. It was also to deliver the right understanding about palm oil contribution to countries, social, and environment.

Sawit Fest 2021 was supported by Palm Oil Plantation Fund Management Agency (PFMA), Bumitama Gunajaya Agro Group, Indonesian Palm Oil Association (IPOA), Asian Agri Group, PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk, and PT Cisadane Sawit Raya Tbk., with the strategic media partners, Media InfoSAWIT and Palm Oil Magazine.

Sawit Fest took every stakeholder, such as, government, businessmen, researhcers, organizations, social and environmental activists, and others to discuss and develop sustainable palm oil in Indonesia.

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