As with most third world countries, the Indonesian government focuses more on the health of textiles producers than on the health of its workers. Indonesia is best known in the textiles world for its batik technique, developed on the island of Java. But Java is also the site of the Citarum River, the most polluted river in the world caused, in large part, by the textiles industry.
Indonesia is one of the world’s top ten textiles producers, supplying 2% of the world’s demand. The industry is the oldest one in Indonesia and is its 5th largest industry.
More than half of the country’s adults stitch, weave, and dye clothes for the world’s biggest fashion brands. Most of those are exported to the United States (60%), the rest go to Europe and Asia.
In spite of recent slowdowns, the government plans to increase exports to 5% of the world’s textiles (US$ 75 billion) by the year 2030, but what will this do to its workers?
Matchalya, an example of a typical textile manufacturing village, is located along the Citarum River. Factories there use river water for their work, and poorly paid workers wear regular gloves to protect themselves from what they have discovered are toxic chemicals. At midnight they throw the untreated wastewater into the river when no one is watching. Major pipes all along the river dump toxic chemicals every night.
Untreated toxic waste is destructive to the ecosystem and injurious to the10 million villagers living near the river. Acids strip fish scales of their protective mucous coating and a thick coating of trash from the villages deprives the river of oxygen. During the last forty years 60% of the fish species have been wiped out, depriving villagers of a major source of food.
Furthermore, this toxic river water irrigates paddy fields nearby and everyone eats the rice grown from them. Villagers drink water channelled from the river, which they also use for bathing and washing clothes. Tests show the water as acidic and filled with heavy metals, neither of which boiling removes. More than 60% of children suffer from severe skin rashes, diseases and ailments.
Matchalya is only one example of the 800 plus textile factories working up and down the Citarum River. Since the problem was first identified as a “super-priority” in 1984, the situation has deteriorated even more.
In 2009 the Asian Development Bank granted Indonesia $15 million to alleviate the problem, but hasn’t been able to release the money because no government official will accept responsibility.
In 2009, the government did enact wastewater legislation for all textile factories, requiring them to remove 15 (out of 100,000) of the most dangerous chemicals before discarding. According to the villagers, though, the government makes promises, but does nothing to follow through.
To help manufacturers, meanwhile, the government is lowering import duties and easing requirements for loans. It is also in the process of extending tax breaks and lowering gas prices. Soon it will start replacing costly, imported raw materials with materials locally grown (at least 60% of cotton is currently imported as of 2017).
None of this helps workers. New jobs seldom translate into high enough wages, which are determined district by district, and most factories request exemptions from paying the minimum wage for financial reasons. Most factories also subcontract their work. The longer the supply chain, the worse the working conditions.
While the situation is ostensibly bleak, there could be solutions to these challenges should the stakeholders want to find one. For example, some of the gaps could be filled by brand manufacturers up the chain. Since they are the main beneficiaries of their suppliers’ production, they could use some of their profits to provide wastewater cleaning equipment and training for each factory along the river. They could then restock some of the lost fish, thereby increasing the workers’ health with fresh fish, healthy rice, and clean water. This would enable workers, in turn, to upgrade the amount and quality of their production – a win-win for the supplier, country, and international buyer.