Guardian's consent to work: A story of stubborn gender norms in Indonesia

For the past 15 years, I have conducted social compliance and labour standards audits in numerous companies, mostly apparel and footwear-a highly women populated industries, in Indonesia, South East Asia and China. There are always some labour practice differences between individual company and between countries. At first, I assumed that the distinction of the labour practice is connected to the operational model, the goods each individual company produce, the country economic condition and the legal systems. Never had I linked the distinction to the socio-cultural values.

One of the unsubtle difference in the garment and footwear manufacturers in Indonesia is in regard with the recruitment practice. To be clear, of the documentation that applicants usually enclosed in their work application. All the personnel records of selected sample workers (women) always include a letter of permission from their guardian, either husband or parents. Unconsciously, I accepted this as the common practice. There was no underlying issue. It is not against any state regulations. So, for those 15 years of auditing, I never give a second though about it.

However, now that I tasted a bit of education about gender and workplace. This “normal” practice teases my thoughts about what is common in the gendered labor practices in Indonesia. What I know is generally a guardian written permission is not one of the required recruitment requirements, if you are an adult.  Only if you are below the age of 18 a guardian consent is legally required. However, somehow these adult women still think that a written consent from a guardian is required when applying for a job. What is more, these companies are accepting this document without feeling the need to clarify that that type of document is not really required, or do they?

Looking at the systemic issue, I then make an assumption that implicitly such consent letter is actually required by the companies as part of document checking. Perhaps, if there is no guardian consent, companies worry if objection arises from the guardian of women workers that may or may not disturb the production process. The drawback of this implicit requirement is clear: without a written guardian consent, women would not dare to apply for a job.

My second assumption is that this common practice, at some degree, reflect the socio-cultural gender norms in Indonesia. Women place, traditionally, is at home; as homemakers and caregivers. As feminize industry such as garment thrives, demand of women workers peaked. However, the swift in labour force demand in particular industry does not affect the traditional value of gender roles. Although, women participation in paid work increases, in the eyes of the traditional society women place is still at home. Thus, consent of those who are perceived have the ultimate rights to deviate the cultural norms is needed to stop any ripple effect.

The most important take away from this for me is that as a working woman I must be aware of the limitation that society put on women to freely and fairly access economic resources. That in practical reality women’s rights to seek financial independent is stubbornly obstructed by social construed gender roles, by unconscious gender bias. Whether I choose to accept this social values, break the barrier or circumvent the situation by playing a submissive role; it is entirely up to me.

For all the working women out there or women who aspire to participate in paid work, as a human being, we have the same rights as men to fairly access economic resources. Being born as women should not strip away our economic rights and independence. It should not reduce our value as a part of a productive society. Then again, I do understand the barrier, I experience the burden. Sometimes, the door is so heavy, it will not budged. In the end, we have to choose our war.  Thus, I would like to suggest, before anything else, be more sensitive of the indicators of society unconscious gender bias in the workplace. Do not take the situation for granted or pretend that this is something normal that we should faithfully accept. And maybe with our awareness, comes the courage to change the adverse norms.

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