by Elizabeth Grossman
Batam, one of Indonesia’s Riau Islands, sits across the smog-choked strait from Singapore, just one degree north of the equator. On October 21 and 22, the days that I’m there, newspaper headlines announce that Singapore is experiencing its worst air pollution since 2006 due to fires, most likely from illegal forest clearing in Sumatra. From a high point above the harbor where we go to see the view, the ship traffic below is mostly obscured by gray haze. A tourist brochure extols the island’s natural features, but what’s most evident is rampant development. Enormous gaudy housing and shopping complexes, strip malls, and new industrial parks appear to be eating up the tropical greenery and eroding the hillsides. Traffic, as in Bandung and Jakarta, is a road-clogging scrum in which motorcycles weave precariously between bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks. It is almost 100ºF, so hot that in the un-airconditioned FSPMI union headquarters, sweat from my hand soaks through my notebook page.
Thanks to much of the island’s designation as a special economic zone beginning in 1989, Batam has been experiencing explosive growth. In the 1970s, the island’s population was under 10,000. Today it has soared to about 900,000 and continues to grow. The industry here is primarily electronics – shipbuilding and general manufacturing are also major industries – with Batam’s workers providing inexpensive labor for assembly line production for Singapore-based operations of international companies. Panasonic, Epson, Sanyo, Siemens, Flextronics, Infineon, Teac, Schneider, Unisem, and Philips are some of the names we see on factory buildings in the Batamindo Industrial Park, one of the island’s largest industrial parks. The website for its Singapore-based developer notes that more than 60,000 people work for the companies located here.
The entrance to the industrial park is guarded, and fencing surrounds both factories and workers’ dormitories. The FSPMI (Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers, which is affiliated with the International Metal Workers Union) union leaders who are driving my colleagues and me around the park caution against taking pictures within sight of the security guards or police we pass frequently on our tour. The dormitories are numbered, three-storey buildings. Laundry hangs from some balconies and fire extinguishers are mounted on outside walls. All windows are completely covered by identical green shades.
At a union meeting
FSPMI hosts an evening meeting so workers can share information. We meet in a hotel that specializes in accommodations for people making the haj to Mecca. Clocks behind the reception desk show “Jakarta time,” “Singapore time,” and “Mecca time.”
That electronics workers here are unionized is remarkable, as unions are the exception throughout the electronics industry worldwide – a legacy of the historical anti-union bias of the microchip industry. But there are several different unions representing workers in Batam. Wages have traditionally been the focus, with occupational safety and health often being overlooked, one of the FSPMI leaders says. “But OSH is the most important issue,” he says. “Because if we are sick we cannot work and cannot earn our salaries.”
There are about two dozen people around the table, roughly three-quarters of them men and the rest from the union’s Women’s Forum. Most of the women wear headscarves. People introduce themselves by describing the companies they work for and the products they work on. “Epson – printer scanner.” “Singapore company supplying Sanyo, Epson, Philips.” “Unisem – integrated circuits.” “Seagate Technology. “Alcatel manufacture for AT&T, Dell, Compaq, Bose.” “Japanese company making Blu-Ray, DVD, CD disks.” “Wiring systems for Toyota, Sumimoto, Honda, Suzuki.” “Varta – lithium battery. “Techtron – MP3 and toys.” “Sanyo – battery for mobile phone.” “Fujitsu, HP – hard drive.” And the list goes on.
Along with this information, people share some of the concerns they have about the health effects of this work. Heat, dust, noise, physical discomfort, muscoskeletal and ergonomic problems are mentioned. Problems with eyesight are cited by people who use what they call “scopes” to examine products.
One union member describes his hearing loss after working at the same factory for ten years. He’s had to go to Jakarta (about 540 miles away) for treatment, he says, showing us copies of his audiometry tests. Another, who’s worked for Varta for 15 years making nickel metal hydride batteries, tells us of colleagues suffering from cancer. Yet another union member tells us about co-workers who’ve been diagnosed with lung disease official diagnosis is TB – “from printed circuit board cutting dust.”
Several people mention women’s reproductive health concerns, among them menstrual problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and quadruplets. One man puts his hand on his wife’s shoulder and tells us of her breast cancer. She’s spent 15 years working in a plant assembling lithium batteries. No one knows if there’s a connection, but when pressed, the company management paid for her treatment.
The FSPMI Women’s Forum was established in 2009 so women could discuss workplace issues specific to them. Among these are reproductive health hazards and reproductive health rights, including those for pregnant workers. We’re told of one plant where almost 90 percent of the workers are women.
“No information or training on chemicals”
The next day, I speak with a young woman named Wulan, who tells me that many of the women who work in the plant with a 90 percent female workforce have come to Batam from far away in other parts of Indonesia, many recruited just after high school.
Wulan came to Batam from Yogyakarta in west central Java – near Mount Merapi, the volcano currently erupting – in 2007. Until her contract was ended recently, she had been working at a Panasonic plant in safety control. Her job was to prepare protective gear for the workers and make sure everyone going into the clean room was properly outfitted with face mask, booties, hairnet, coveralls, etc. A typical working day is 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., she tells me, with three hours of that, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., as overtime. But there’s also a night shift. She tells me she calls her family every day.
She also tells me that co-workers in line production have become sick from work they do cleaning parts. “There are lots of solvents,” she days. People have problems with their legs from whole days standing. Reproductive health problems are mentioned again.
“The union has tried to investigate chemicals using MSDS (material safety data sheets) and found that all the chemicals being used are dangerous,” one union member tells us. “The MSDS says because of gas respiratory protection should be used but workers only use paper or cotton masks,” he says. Methylene chloride, benzene, TCE, lithium, methanol, metal solvent, nickel metal hydride, isopropyl alcohol, nickel, Pergasol, and other metals and solvents are among the chemicals people have questions about.
When I ask if workers are given any special training on handling hazardous chemicals, I am told, “No information or training on chemicals. Just what we learn from MSDS.” Another issue raised is that workers move from factory to factory – many on short-term contracts, some only three moths long – so it’s difficult to build leadership on these issues, let alone organize workers. This also makes it difficult to trace diseases.
At one plant assembling circuit boards, recounts one union member, the management said theirs was a “clean industry” because “they collect all the particles.” We’re also told that at some plants workers are offered milk at the end of the day – with the intent of counteracting chemical effects. When concerns about health impacts of chemical exposure were raised with management, one response from employers has been, “What is your scientific proof that this industry can be hazardous?”
Some of the factories described are apparently ISO certified or ROHs compliant. But none of this guarantees employees the right to know the identity or hazards of the chemicals they’re working with. The people we meet are working hard to inform themselves.