Behind Indonesia's seafood sector: Domin's fight for the rights of women workers

Millions of farmers and workers who produce the food we all eat are forced to work long hours in inhumane conditions. The burden of this injustice falls more heavily on women, who face discrimination, get paid less than men and are denied the same basic human and legal rights. Read this inspiring story of one woman's intense commitment to fight for the rights of women workers in Indonesia's seafood sector - meet Domin Dhamayanti.

The bright and colorful space with tiny yellow chairs, books and singing children is not quite what you expect when visiting a committed human rights group.

The Surabaya Institute of Labor Solidarity’s one room office is located at the back of a daycare center, where women workers bring their kids before their shift at one of the huge seafood factories in the city.

This is where the relationship of trust with the workers begins.

Barefoot and sipping on a coffee, Domin Dhamayanti might appear a marked contrast to the seafood companies she and her organization have taken on multiple times in the past few years.

“The big seafood companies here are very powerful. But we have the women’s trust, and they have no one else. There’s no way we will give up.”

She speaks softly, but with a passion and commitment that is unquestionable.

After spending more than 14 years working to improve the rights of workers in Indonesia, Domin explains, with no sense of irony in her voice, that her favorite food is vegetables and seafood. "Especially shrimp! I really mean it!"

Her commitment to the labor movement is in her blood.

Growing up in a family of workers in service sectors, she saw firsthand the conditions they face – and as she states, this isn't uncommon. "Almost everyone in Indonesia is a worker or is connected to them."

Domin lists examples where workers have succeeded in standing up for their rights. Campaigns for workers’ rights to take collective action at famous brands like Puma, Nike and Adidas show that things can change to improve workers' lives in supply chains.

"There is nothing wrong with being a worker - what is wrong is when workers' rights are taken. When rights are taken away, so is the ability to lead a dignified life.”

She speaks as the leader of the Surabaya Institute of Labor Solidarity (ISBS) which supports workers to understand and campaign for their rights. Her drive comes from her life experience – at a young age, she felt compelled to get involved and started living in a boarding-house with workers to see the conditions they face on a daily basis.

Budi, a female worker in the shrimp industry, Indonesia. Credit: Adrian Mulya

Budi, 28, a female worker in Indonesia's shrimp industry. To earn the minimum wage, Budi often skips lunches and toilet breaks and works an hour of unpaid overtime every day, so she can try and meet her target for peeling shrimps. Credit: Adrian Mulya

Women workers are most vulnerable.

Domin explains some of the biggest challenges many female workers face.

"Women workers in Indonesia are in the most vulnerable position," she says. "Women workers tend to earn lower wages and are excluded from the government’s health and labor insurance programs."

In terms of welfare, women working in the seafood sector are overwhelming concentrated in the worst conditions, with very little job security and inadequate health, physical and psychological protection. Often, they have no maternity leave, which means they have to return to work soon after giving birth and have to stop breastfeeding. Sometimes they are not able to change sanitary napkins (if they can afford them at all), during their shifts. They don’t always have proper protective equipment when handling dangerous chemicals. Active participation of women workers in trade unions is also low.

This is why her organization is part of the Indonesian Sustainable Seafood Alliance, organizations who have come together with workers in the seafood industry to campaign for their rights.

Domin and her team have dedicated their lives to achieving change.

"One of the basic principles of organizing is listening.” It is amazing to see what can happen when workers build a community and try to make changes together.

“We call this community ‘Buruh Perempuan Inspiratif’ (which translates to inspired women workers’). We create the space for workers to tell you as much as possible, because workers, especially women, have a lot on their minds and they need to share and work through it all. This can happen in many ways - with casual conversation, singing, drawing, dancing. We see that by the end of it they become much more confident, and realize that they have a community. Then we start to talk about work, and together we work through the problems and how we can change them."

Sometimes, a conversation is all it takes for change to start.

Domin goes on to explain how ISBS ensures everything it does is for the benefit of the workers.  "In our organization the most important values are those of solidarity and that all humans should live in dignity.” She is clear that looking after workers should be the priority for businesses. “We also help workers understand that their lives are more important than money – which means everything done in the business world should consider the human rights."

And she's not going to give up without a fight.

“Despite the risks of speaking out, I have come to know real solidarity from those I have worked alongside, and there's no question in my mind about continuing this fight."

This entry posted by Cassie Eades, Oxfam Global Campaigner - Food and Climate Change, on 27 June 2018.

Top photo: Women's rights activist Domin Dhamayanti, at Surabaya Institute of Labor Solidarity’s office, Indonesia. Credit: Adrian Mulya/Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia


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