Gender justice on the plantations?

Women plantation workers are given little protection when spraying chemicals. (Sawit Watch)

DTE 99-100, October 2014

An interview with Helena Trie, Communication Staff, Serikat Petani Kelapa Sawit (SPKS) the Oil Palm Smallholders Union.[1]


DTE: Could you tell us a little about SPKS? Does SPKS represent women smallholders as well as men? If yes, how many women and men are represented by SPKS?

Helena Trie: SPKS has 9 branch organisations in Indonesia: Sekadau, Sanggau and Sintang in West Kalimantan, Paser in East Kalimatan, Labuan Batu Utara in North Sumatera, Rokan Hulu and Kuantan Singingi in Riau, and Tanjung Jabung Barat in Jambi. Through these nine regional branches, we represent oil palm farmers’ groups and workers on company oil palm plantations.

There are women as well as men oil palm workers. For day-labourers on plantations which use the piece-work system, involving women (their wives) and children can help them earn more from the company. So, the support provided by SPKS isn’t merely for men, but also for the women workers.

Women’s groups have been involved in several SPKS meetings, including a meeting at Labuan Batu Utara in North Sumatra, on August 29th, which discussed a road map for independent smallholders.


DTE: Do you think that oil palm development affects men and women's lives differently? If yes, how?

HT:  Yes, there are differences. Mostly, Indonesian law still adheres to the patriarchal system; women follow their husbands and men are the heads of households, so women are not considered landowners, except if their husbands die.

As plantation workers, women are often paid less than men. There are also multiple burdens for women because they work on the plantations under the day-labourer, contract system, but must also fulfil their domestic responsibilities at home.

It also depends on the company they are working for. There are several palm oil plantations that give women the same jobs as they give to the men: land clearing, fertilizing, spraying and plantation upkeep work. Other plantation companies only employ women to do fertilizing and spraying work.


DTE: Is SPKS running any programmes specifically addressing gender differences and issues currently?  If yes, please describe.

HT: Yes we are. Last year, SPKS’s branch in Labuan Batu Utara, North Sumatra set up an alliance to push for safeguards for women workers. They want the government to uphold women’s reproductive rights by protecting their reproductive organs from the impact of pesticides that may cause cervical cancer.


DTE: Apart from working on the plantation, what other employment choices are there for women when plantation companies enter an area?

HT: They don’t have any other choice. Basically, all the workers employed by the company are local people. The company insists that they hand over their land and turn it into palm oil plantations. Previously, the land was used for growing other crops but when the company takes it there is no other choice but to work on the plantation.

[1] See SPKS website: Indonesian language only