New Internationalist

Overworked and Underpaid

Issue 086

Most Third World peasants work long hours in a variety of jobs. They don’t lack work, they lack a decent income. Glen Williams looks at the life of the rural ‘working poor’ in Java, Indonesia.

Nobody in our family is unemployed. We are only poor people.’ Pak Wongso gives a wry smile, and nods towards his daughter Endang who arrives carrying a huge pile of sweet potato leaves for the goats. His wife Siti is working on a sugar-cane plantation ten miles away, and will return late this afternoon. His sons Paimin and Budi are still at school. They will start cleaning out the goat pen when they come home.

The Wongso family live in Tegalrejo village on the island of Java, Indonesia. They own no farming land, only the plot on which their bamboo-walled house stands and a narrow yard running round it. Like millions of other landless and near-landless peasants they work long hours for meagre returns almost every day of the year. Unemployment benefits, trade unions, the right to strike, sick pay, pensions, holidays and even weekends are unknown to them. They must work simply to survive.

Economists now recognize that the concept of ‘unemployment’ is unsuitable for describing the work force of peasant societies such as rural Java. The term ‘underemployment’, implying that peasants spend many hours in ‘enforced idleness’, is thought more appropriate. Yet recent studies in Asia, especially in India and Indonesia, show that peasants (whether or not they own land) work long hours, throughout the year, in a wide range of agricultural and off-farm jobs. The returns for their labour, however, are pitifully small. They do not lack employment’ as such. What they lack is employment ensuring enough income to cover their basic needs.

Some analysts argue that increased agricultural productivity is the key to higher incomes for these ‘working poor’ rural households. This is far too simplistic. Granted, low productivity sets strict limits on agricultural wages. But higher productivity, in itself, is no guarantee of higher wages. For example, real wages for rice cultivation in Java have either stagnated or increased only marginally during the past decade, despite increased productivity due to improved technology. But the increased production has benefitted land-owning peasants rather than the landless and near-landless groups.

Higher agricultural productivity may even eliminate the jobs of the poorest members of the work force. For example, the -introduction of mechanised rice mills into Java during the 1970s caused the loss of up to 1 million rice-pounding jobs previously held by women. Labour-saving harvesting methods also drastically reduced women’s employment opportunities.

Recent research by the Government sponsored Agro Economic Survey has thrown fresh light on the rural ‘employment problem’ in Java. Findings show that low-income households in Java adopt a sort of ‘survival strategy’ marked in particular by:

Seasonal employment - Many men work for short periods in agriculture, then migrate for several months to cities where they work as pedicab drivers, food hawkers or construction labourers. Women also work for wages in the rice fields during certain seasons. But at other times they work as labourers in sugarcane fields or building sites, travelling sometimes two or three hours to and from work each day.

Multiple activities - During the course of a single day, landless and near-landless peasants may work in two or three ‘jobs’ as well as doing household chores. For example, a woman may work as a small trader at the village market for a couple of hours in the early morning, then harvest rice for wages on a neighbour’s field, - fetch fodder for the family’s cattle during the afternoon, and weave mats for sale during the evening. A man might work on a road-building site in the morning, then do some repairs on the family house, and during the evening go fishing or collecting frogs in the rice fields. Many landless and small landowning households in Java earn up to 80 per cent of their income in off-farm jobs.

Long working hours - Adult men from landless peasant households work an average of nine hours a day, every day of the week; firstly for wages and the rest in household chores and community work. Women from landless households spend about ten hours a day in income earning activities and domestic tasks like cooking, housecleaning, washing clothes, childcare, fetching water, firewood and fodder for animals.

Women’s work - Women from peasant households spend one-third to two-thirds of their working hours in income-earning jobs, usually outside the home. On the other hand women from the higher ‘class’ of village society — the wives of civil servants, military personnel and school teachers - rarely have income-earning jobs. Only manual work is available and for them it’s seen as degrading. In peasant society having a job outside the home is regarded as an economic necessity.

Child labour - Official statistics are based on a work force aged ten years and over, but children from ‘working poor’ households begin working from the age of five or six. Their contributions to the household are generally not in the form of direct income. Rather, their work frees parents from domestic tasks so they can take jobs outside the home. Children do chores around the house such as minding younger brothers and sisters, sweeping the house and yard, and collecting firewood, fodder and water. They also carry meals to parents working in the fields and search for wild food like snails, fish, crabs and frogs. Girls tend to work longer hours than boys, and also leave school at an earlier age.

By spreading their risks over several jobs and working long hours from an early age, the rural ‘working poor’ in Java manage to stay just above the level of survival. Yet they remain highly vulnerable to events totally outside their control - technological changes, the weather, disease, price rises, crop failures and politics. Without land, livestock or capital, they are economically weak and insecure. And without organisations to defend their interests, they are politically powerless.

Family planning, small-scale industry, increased agricultural productivity and ‘transmigration’ of Javanese villagers to other islands within Indonesia have all been tried as ways of overcoming the ,employment problem’ in rural Java. Yet none of these policies has had much impact on the income of peasant families: largely because they ignore the basic problems of economic insecurity and political powerlessness.

But these are not the only options open to the Indonesian Government to overcome rural poverty. Radical proposals which only a few years ago might have been branded subversive are now discussed widely.

Two such options under discussion are worth mentioning. One - all landless and near-landless peasant households in Java should be given a minimum of a quarter hectare of land to grow food in small gardens. (Sufficient land could be made available by redistributing communally or Government-owned land and private holdings in excess of the limits laid down by the 1960 Basic Agrarian Law.)

And two - peasants should be allowed to form independent organisations to represent their economic interests. These measures would give some economic security and create political clout.

But if past form is any guide, the Government will shy away from making tough decisions likely to alienate landowners who are their main supporters in rural areas. Landless peasants like Pak Wongso may have to wait many years before they own even a small part of the land they till or can demand fairer wages for their labour.

Glen Williams is a former Oxfam fieldworker in Indonesia.

Photo: Glen Williams
Pak Wongso and his wife Siti. Despite long hours of work they're no better off than 20 years ago. Photo: Glen Williams

'It depends on who owns the land'

Pak Ahmad owns 3 hectares of irrigated paddy fields in Tegalrejo village. This makes him a well-off farmer by Javanese standards. He employs labourers such as Pak Wongso to hoe the fields before the rice seedlings are planted.

Pak Wongso has worked the fields of Pak Ahmad and other farmers for the past 20 years. He doesn't remember exactly what the wage was 20 years ago, but it was enough to buy about 2 kilos of rice. At the time there was no irrigation and Pak Ahmad's fields produced only about 2 tons of rice per hectare. Now, with year-round irrigation, high-yielding rice seeds and fertilisers, the same fields produce 12 tons per hectare. The increased production has obviously benefitted Pak Ahmad and his family. All his five children go to school, and he recently bought a motorcycle. His house, formerly of bamboo, now has brick walls and a tiled floor.

But what of Pak Wongso? Nothing much has changed. His wage is still only enough to buy about 2 kilos of rice. All the benefits from greater rice production has gone to Pak Ahmad and his family. But why doesn't Pak Wongso demand higher wages? (Obviously Pak Ahmad could afford to pay more.)

Pak Wongso explains: 'It all depends on who ovens the land. Pak Ahmad is the landowner, so he sets the wages. If I don't accept his offer, I don't get any work. There are plenty of others who want the work.'

A woman's work at 12

Photo: Glen Williams
Endang engulfed by sweet potato leaves Photo: Glen Williams

Endang is now 12. She was just five when she began helping her mother look after her younger brothers Paimin and Budi. She carried each in turn around the house, wrapped in a long shawl slung over one shoulder, and fed them rice porridge with mashed bananas.

Endang began school at the age of seven and was a bright pupil at first. But her mother often had to leave to work on other peoples fields. So Endang had to stay home to look after her brothers. Finally, at the age of 10, she stopped going to school altogether. She soon forgot much of what she had learned. She can still sign her own name, but she cannot read. And she can scarcely understand the national language, Indonesian, let alone speak it fluently.

Endang has been doing the work of a grown women for the past two years - feeding the goats, collecting water and firewood, washing clothes and kitchen utensils, sweeping the house and yard, cooking and also working on neighbours' fields. She hopes to get married in 3 or 4 years time.

Paimin, now aged 10, is much luckier. He still goes to school, a half hour walk from home. Because he comes from a poor family, is bright and works hard, he was given a scholarship by a local social welfare agency. But he also does many chores around the house such as cleaning out the goat pen, collecting firewood and water, and helping to look after his younger brother. His ambition is to get a high school education and then become a Government official.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Overworked and Underpaid

Leave your comment