• Interview Series, Success Stories

Elly Rosita Silaban, Union Leader, Indonesia

3 Nov 2019

Elly Rosita Silaban is Indonesia’s first female Trade Union Leader from Tapanuli Utara in North Sumatra Province. 

For its Voices from the Supply Chain series, Better Work spoke to Elly about her quest to spark positive change across the garment industry in Indonesia – including her involvement in creating safe working environments by stamping out harassment and all forms of exploitation.

1. What does a typical day of work look like for you?

I wake up early, at 4.30am, and the first thing I do is cook for my family. I also carry out household chores such as sweeping and mopping. After that I prepare for my work activities. Discipline is very important to me; it’s my core principle. I always try my best to be on time for appointments, I don’t like to make people wait for me. My work usually runs on throughout the day until late, around 7pm. Once I get at home, I spend time with my family and I also read books and watch the news to keep up-to-date. I then go to the bed around 11pm.

2. What is the best thing about your job?

This job offers me the opportunity to meet many important people and to influence them by speaking rationally. There’s a proverb that says that the people who adapt  are the ones who survive. I try to adapt and put myself in other people’s shoes to understand their actions. This job pushes me to keep learning.  

3. What is the worst thing about your job?

The negative side is that many of the trade unions only think about their own interests and get competitive instead of being open to discussion and partnership. They sometimes feed doctrines to younger activists that the government and trade associations are bad, or against them. The second issue is the way trade unions present themselves to our partners such as the government and businesses. Progress starts with good communication.

4. What positive changes in the garment industry have you seen during your career?

There are several things that have improved. For example, dialogue with the government, trade associations and international organizations is definitely better. The relocation of factories across Indonesia also generates benefits for other regions, so the industry doesn’t just centre around Jakarta and local economies grow. Working conditions are also getting better in some factories and – although others might still lag behind – we can see progress.

5. What are the biggest challenges that remain?

Investment policies and mechanisms need to be closely monitored. There are many cases of investors or factory managers coming to Indonesia on tourist visas. The accountability and responsibility of these investors need to be enforced to prevent them running away if an incident or fatality happens. The government has a very important role to play in this matter.

6. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

I would like to see more respect given to the people behind the fashion industry. For example, a simple gesture of appreciation for factory workers at the fashion shows would be a start.

7. How do you think the garment industry will evolve over the next 10 years?

Technological advancements in the garment industry are already affecting workers. In the future some labour will be replaced by robots so workers need to prepare themselves to adapt to these changes. All parties need to work together to ensure that we are prepared.

8. How do you personally decide what clothing to buy?

I prefer smart-casual styles for my daily activities. Occasionally, I buy more formal clothes for meetings with government officials, trade associations or international organizations. To be honest, I am still not fully aware of labour issues when buying clothes made by certain brands. I haven’t been able to stop buying certain labels even if I know they don’t treat their workers well. That said, I always try to raise awareness about what the people employed by these brands may experience.

9. When you meet factory workers, what do you ask them?

The first thing I always ask to them is “How much is your salary?” “How many pieces of clothing do you make a day?” and “Have you ever worn the shirts you make?”. Most workers realize that what they have isn’t equal to profit they generate for the company, but they feel hopeless as they think there is nothing they can do to improve their circumstances.

10. What are your ambitions for the future?

In the future, I hope we will be able to move on from basic issues such as wages to more sophisticated topics. Wages should no longer be an issue for our workers.

I want to see stronger trade unions, more workers joining the unions, and less conflict.

I also want to see women play a more important role within trade unions. Female activists need to equip themselves with the necessary knowledge and skills to be able to participate in national and international debates. I am happy to have finally smashed the glass ceiling as the first female president in the confederation but during my campaign for the role, my gender became an issue. Often female members doubted me and supported male candidates instead. But fortunately, most people choose wisely based on my ability not my gender.

This interview is part of Better Work’s ‘Ten Questions’ series, capturing views from people along the length of global garment supply chains – from factory floor to high street retailer – for their perspective on the industry, the issues it faces, and its future. Find out more and hear other perspectives here.

In the future, I hope we will be able to move on from basic issues such as wages to more sophisticated topics. Wages should no longer be an issue for our workers.

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