JG: The True Sole of Indonesia's Child Laborers
Oct 21, 2012 10:01 PDT
JG: The True Sole of Indonesia's Child Laborers
October 21, 2012
The Jakarta Globe
by Grace Susetyo
Fans of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tales may remember the story
of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.”
It was the tale of a humble shoemaker and his wife who struggled with
business until mysterious elves came to help in the middle of the
night. The elves made fancy shoes and the couple became the richest
shoemakers in the country.
And while the story is more than 200 years old, it still rings true,
especially when looking at today’s fashion industry.
Flip through a magazine, watch a fashion show or stroll through a mall
and you will probably see the latest collection of fancy shoes,
venerated as objects of envy, even status symbols. Some fashionistas
say, “there’s no such thing as too many shoes.”
While most of us have at least a few pairs of shoes in our closets,
how often do we actually think about who made them? Renowned brands
and famed designers come to mind, and we assume there’s big money
for everyone in the business. To many people, it seems shoes simply
appear in shops for us to purchase and take home — they might as
well be made by elves.
In the not-so-faraway land of West Java is a backyard of Southeast
Asia’s fashion industry where elves are indeed at work. Only
they’re not the fairy-dusted kind that disappear with the moonbeams
at daybreak. They’re called child laborers. And their lives are
definitely no fairy tale.
Learning the family trade
In a beautiful village in the outskirts of Bogor lives Demung, a
14-year-old shoemaker who has been in the trade for three years.
Demung dropped out of 4th grade five years ago for “economic
reasons.” In a barely furnished, unplastered two-bedroom house with
no running water, Demung lives with his parents, grandparents,
20-year-old uncle, two teenage aunts and 11-year-old sister.
Demung’s father, grandfather and uncle are shoemakers, too. His
mother and grandmother are domestic helpers, and his 17-year-old aunt
is a factory laborer.
Demung’s sister, Erna, is in 5th grade. Most children in their
community drop out around this age, but Demung hopes that Erna will
finish high school. The teenager initially said he had no desire to go
back to school, but later admitted, “I would have loved to continue
my studies if my family could afford it. But since it’s been too
long, I’d better do my job well so that I can someday help put my
sister through school.”
At 8 a.m. on any Monday morning, Demung and his father make their
kilometer-long walk to their boss’s workshop. It would be the start
to a six-day work week of 54 to 100 hours. The father-son team make 10
to 20 pairs of shoes per day.
A hazardous environment
Entering the workshop, the atmosphere is actually friendly. Yuli, the
owner, inherited the workshop from his father and has worked as a
shoemaker since childhood before making his way to become a trusted
supplier for a well known Southeast Asian fashion brand and a famous
Indonesian designer. Yuli and his employees seem to get along well.
His wife was serving the employees coffee.
Despite the likable human dynamics, the strong scents of glue,
gasoline and other chemicals are hard to ignore — and this workshop
ranks among the better-ventilated ones. Still, it’s hard to imagine
how anyone could spend every day inhaling these chemicals to make a
“I used to get headaches when I entered a workshop,” said Demung,
recalling his first days as a shoemaker at age 11. “Masks should be
worn in a workshop, but they’re hardly available here. Even then,
I’d have to buy them with my own money.”
The spinning sewing machine is the workshop’s constant soundtrack.
The sharp tools of shoemaking — hammers, nails and sculpting knives
— are definitely not suitable for children to use.
“I once got injured while sculpting the sole of a shoe. I cut
myself. I was treated with iodine. It took a week to heal, and I kept
working in the meantime,” Demung said.
Footwear workshops are usually the busiest around Ramadan, because
many people want new shoes for Idul Fitri. During this time, Demung
often works until 10 p.m. and sometimes until 2 a.m. In August, Demung
spent the holidays sick in bed from being overworked.
A neglected cause
Child labor exists because communities don’t think it’s a serious
problem and there is demand in the market.
“Consumers don’t think about whether their shoes are made by
children,” Demung said. “All they care about is that the shoes are
of good quality and affordable. Whether the minors who make them can
go to school or have to give that up for work, that’s the
Some consumers are even amused when posed with the idea that their
shoes might be made by children.
“What a clever child! Now I want to learn how to make my own
shoes,” laughed Dhea, a mall shopper. “But maybe it’s just the
way it is. Those who can’t afford to go to school can get into the
shoemaking business. Isn’t it good for them, to become independent
at an early age?”
The International Labour Organization differentiates the “child
laborer” from the “working child.” In developed countries, many
high school students earn pocket money by working part time in
supermarkets or restaurants. The child laborer, in contrast, is a
minor who spends more than four hours a day at work — or any time at
all doing hazardous work — and has to give up education, rest and
Most village officials in Ciomas admit that they have teenagers at
school who “help their parents” run a footwear workshop, but balk
when asked to be introduced to an individual. None of the villages
surveyed have data on child labor in their famous footwear industry
because shoemaking is considered informal work.
Even the ILO’s latest data is from 2006, the year it finished a
child labor eradication project in Ciomas. The ILO concluded that
there was a “negligible” number of minors working in the footwear
The truth is, while child laborers only make up a minority of
shoemakers in Ciomas, they are still common among financially
Asked why he employs a child laborer, Yuli said: “Not a child, but a
teenager. Most start by observing shoemaking friends. One friend
attends school, the other works. The teenager compares and becomes
interested in shoemaking.”
At the end of the week, Demung and his father, Odi, take home a joint
wage of Rp 150,000 ($15). If Rp 150,000 is the price of one pair of
shoes, and Demung and Odi make 60 pairs a week, then they only take
home less than 2 percent of the money made in the supply chain — a
Odi said that he’s proud to have his hard-working son follow in his
footsteps. Demung’s mother Susi, though, had something else to say.
“I look at other children his age and think, he should be in school.
I’m sorry to see him work with his father, leaving early in the
morning, coming home at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m.,” she said, choking back
tears. “Someday, Demung wants to build a house. He wants to provide
for his sister’s, and later, his future children’s education.”
Happily ever after?
Most people assume that education is the solution to child labor.
After all, school children from affluent families don’t become child
laborers like Demung.
However, many neighbors in the community complained that even if
school tuition fees were free, surprise expenses such as books and
uniforms are still troublesome. Demung and his parents’ total
monthly wages amount to Rp 900,000 per month, most of which they spend
on rice. Even protein and vegetables are luxuries on such an income,
let alone an education.
“If the government made school compulsory for kids my age, I think
that would make my family suffer. Who would help us make ends meet if
I didn’t work? And would it be possible for this 14-year-old to go
back to elementary school?” Demung said.
Achmad Marzuki, executive director of the Network of Indonesian Child
Labor NGOs (Jarak), said the reasons why children in Ciomas drop out
of school has little to do with tuition fees. Rather, it was because
the national education system accommodated neither the needs of
working children, nor the more immediate financial needs of the
In order to break the vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation that
traps child laborers, schools in Ciomas need to prepare the youth for
the local job market, but in a way that they could someday work their
way out of manual labor into white collar jobs, such as footwear
design, marketing and entrepreneurship.
“Government-run vocational training centers in Ciomas provide
sewing, embroidery and welding programs. It makes no sense to the
local situation, and the government should know better,” Marzuki
Marzuki added that in order for school attendance to increase among
working children, schools should offer flexible hours, be easily
accessible from children’s homes and provide practical skills to
solve day-to-day problems such as money management, labor rights and
Having the government implement policies to eradicate child labor is
one way to begin solving the problem. Another part of the equation is
sparking a consumer push for fair trade footwear. This includes fair
pay, the exclusion of children from hazardous work, safety precautions
for adults doing hazardous work and providing the children of
employees with proper education. Another way is the refusal to buy
products from companies that treat their workers otherwise, and
speaking up about the footwear industry’s injustices.
Will Demung have his happily ever after? A house built from his
hard-earned cash, attending Erna’s graduation?
The moonbeams dissolve with the Tuesday dawn, and the shoemaker’s
elf prepares for another laborious day in the workshop. The shoemaker
boss and his wife are yet to be rich and famous, and it looks like
their elf has to wait even longer.
‘The Shoemaker’s Elf: Reality and Hope’
This report was filmed as a documentary originally broadcast on
BeritaSatu TV on Oct. 12 to 14. It was funded by the AJI-ILO child
labor journalism fellowship.
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