Who made the clothes you’re wearing? Who grew, processed and prepared the food you’re eating? Who rolled that cigarette you’re smoking? The chances are your clothes, food, cigarettes and many other products you use were made by women.
Jobs for women only
Several months ago I visited the House of Sampoerna in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, a museum and cigarette factory. My tour of the museum charting the history of the Sampoerna cigarette company culminated in a look at the actual factory where I saw row upon row of women in bright yellow uniforms rolling and packaging cigarettes. I was amazed by the speed and agility with which these women could work. A packer can create as many as 200 packs of cigarettes per hour.
I asked a member of staff, also female, why the company employed only women to work at its factories. I had assumed that it was so they wouldn’t smoke the products because Javanese women rarely smoke. But I was mistaken. Sampoerna only employs female factory workers because they make a better working community, and that social atmosphere creates a more efficient workforce.
And Sampoerna is not alone in utilizing female employees. In general, across Indonesia and most of Asia, women are employed to work in factories far more than men.
Women have history in factories
We have all heard about sweatshops, garment factories where workers, many of whom are women, are forced to work for a pittance in developing countries. But non-exploitative factories, where women work for a low but livable wage are rarely in the spotlight.
Women have a long history of working in factories, going back to the 1800s when women were employed at wood pulp mills and paper processing plants from Lowell Mill in Massachusetts, USA, to the Jämsänkoski Pulp Mill inFinland.
In the early 1900s the Radium Girls became famous in the US after contracting radium poisoning caused by painting glow-in-the-dark watch faces at a factory in New Jersey. They made history by suing their employer, thereby establishing rights for individual workers who contract occupational diseases to sue.
During World War II, recruitment of women to work in factories increased as men went off to fight. Since then, however, the closure of many factories in countries such as the UK has led to a decline in female factory workers.
Made in Asia, made by women
In Asia, however, where the world’s largest producer countries are now located, it is women who make the majority of products we use every day. Here in Indonesia they can be seen going to work every morning in their matching uniforms, often in company-organized buses. Wages are low and the hours are long, but it is nonetheless a reliable and stable way to bring money home.
So next time you use any factory-made product, spare a thought for the women who made it.