Thursday, August 04, 2005

Children at Work

Sharon Bessell, in Inside Indonesia, March 1996, wrote about Children at Work:

Officially, 2.4 million Indonesian children work in factories or on the streets, instead of being at school. Unofficially, the number could be 10 million...

We know that young boys are forced to work for several months at a time on the fishing platforms (jermals) of North Sumatra. These children live and work in appalling conditions. They must remain on the platform for up to three months at a time, have an inadequate diet and face physical, verbal and sexual abuse from older fishermen.

Death by drowning is a constant danger for these children, the majority of whom have never learned to swim.


In Jakarta recently I spoke with the mother of a three year old girl. Both mother and child work for up to 12 hours a day and then sleep in the dusty confines of a traditional vegetable market. Having migrated from the countryside in search of a better life after the death of her husband, this woman earns only Rp 2,000 per day (about A$1.25).


School drop-out rates remain a significant problem. In 1990 only 79% of children completed 6 years of primary school, and only 55% of primary school graduates continued to junior secondary school.

Irrelevant curriculums, poorly trained teachers - particularly in remote and poor areas - and inaccessibility in some remote regions all contribute to the decision of parents, or children themselves, to drop out of school.

Children who live and work on the streets, and many who have migrated to the big cities alone or with their families, do not have a permanent address and therefore cannot obtain an identity card. Consequently, the formal schooling system is completely closed to them.


One 14-year old girl explained, 'my parents are dead, I have to support myself, how can I go to school when I must work?'.


Factory children, usually girls aged between twelve and fourteen years, routinely work eight to fourteen hours a day, six days a week.


Child scavengers at Bantar Gebung, the major dump site servicing Jakarta, work and live in conditions that expose them to accidents, disease and long-term health problems.


One group of working children to receive very little attention are the pembantu, or domestic servants. A recent study, the first of its kind in Indonesia, indicated that as many as 1.5 million children, usually girls, are employed as pembantu. Earning as little as Rp 20,000 to Rp 50,000 (A$12.50 to A$31.25) a month, they are on call virtually 24 hours a day. Isolated from their families and often far from home, they are extremely vulnerable not only to exploitation but to verbal, physical and even sexual abuse.


Harassment and violence from officialdom is a constant threat. Nothing illustrates these dangers as clearly as the twelve-year old boy, who has lived and worked on the streets since the age of nine, selling water and lollies at a busy train station in Jakarta. One day he spotted the policeman who had abused him and confiscated his wares many times in the past. Running away to avoid arrest, or at least trouble, he slipped and fell under oncoming traffic that severed his leg above the knee. He has nowhere to go for care and comfort - the streets are his only home - and earning a living will now be more difficult than ever.


Sharon Bessell teaches in the Politics Department at Monash University, Melbourne. She expresses her thanks to Sekretariat Anak Merdeka Indonesia (SAMIN), KOMPAK, Institut Sosial Jakarta and Yayasan Kesejahteraan Anak Indonesia for information used in her article.


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