MAC: Mines and Communities

A bitter harvest

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

A bitter harvest

New Internationalist - March 1999

Kathy Robinson shows how women reap the consequences of a masculine industry.

In the hours just after dawn Marna sets out with a group of women and elderly men from Soroako in Sulawesi, Indonesia. They walk across their former rice fields - now a corporate golf course. After a two-hour trek they reach the only land available for crops. The rest has been claimed for mining development. On the way the 'man-haul' trucks pass them by as the young men are transported to the mine. None of Marna's family have been able to find jobs there - her father was considered 'too old' at 40. The younger women are left to do the bulk of the physical labour on the farms.

All over the world, mining is men's work. When the Canadian personnel manager of Inco's mine in Soroako was asked why the workforce was all male he looked surprised - to him this was unremarkable. 'It's government legislation,' he said. Indonesian labour legislation (inherited from the Dutch) prohibits the employment of women in mines. And even in countries where it is legal, workers often consider women in mines taboo or bad luck.

Mining is seen as so 'naturally' masculine that few people consider its effects on women. What they don't realize is that the low-cost labour of Third World men as miners is sustained and subsidized by unpaid female labour; in the household, on farms and at markets.

In Soroako, men once worked in an egalitarian fashion alongside their wives and other family members in the fields. But mining companies soon set up hierarchical self-contained settlements. The mineworkers at Soroako live in segregated housing according to their job at the mine and wear different uniforms and helmets to signify their company status. The women also have set roles now - mostly as company wives or mining-town prostitutes.

The influx of expatriates heightens indigenous women's awareness of class - they are astounded by the wealth of the managers' wives and families. In the case of the remote Freeport mine in West Papua, the company regularly flies the wives of management to Queensland. They return from their weekend of shopping draped in new clothes and jewellery.

The managers' wives in the mining town of Soroako are expected to take on a leadership and welfare role in the community through involvement in the Association of Inco Families, an organization in which their position parallels that of their husband in the workforce. They give out packages of goods on the birth of babies and run adult literacy classes for the wives of labourers. Local women value many of these 'welfare' benefits; improved medical services in particular mean their babies are less likely to die.

But the colonial attitudes of the company also change social roles. Many incoming men are single and have high incomes. Bars and brothels are as inevitable in the company towns and squatter settlements throughout Asia and the Pacific as they are around military bases.

Companies actively encourage prostitution around the mining towns and at popular destinations for the miners' holidays. While in Soroako, I attended a publicity night for an airline at the company-built club. It was billed as a film screening but after showing us a short advertising film, the presenter became embarrassed. He explained to the audience of men, women and children that his presentation was aimed at mining and timber camps in Indonesia. The reason for his embarrassment became clear as the images lit up on the screen. We were presented with scenes of the 'sex capitals' of Asia - streets of bars, strip and sex shows. The people in the images were primarily white men partnered by beautiful young Asian women. The voice-over had messages such as 'Come to Perth for a change and a rest... and you'll come back for the rest' accompanying images of a topless Aussie girl (the only non-Asian woman) sunbaking on a Perth beach. The message worked on sexual innuendo and the image of male sexuality needing immediate and frequent gratification. Migrant workers expect sexual services to be available near where they live.

Another role for local women in Indonesian mining towns is the 'contract wife'. The contract wife's marriage ends when the worker disappears after his contract is up (often to a wife back home). Women working as prostitutes or contract wives are usually immigrants and often especially vulnerable as they lack protection from family members. Many marry in good faith, ignorant of any other wives, and assume a life-long commitment. For others, there is often a hope or fantasy that the 'contract' will lead to a permanent arrangement, a 'way out' of poverty (and it happens with enough regularity for the fantasy to be fed). There were also a few women in Soroako where the departing contract 'husband' did not take the wife with him, but did continue to remit money to support their children. But mostly the costs of this are paid by the communities where the women come from. It is the women themselves who have to deal with the economic strain of raising children without paternal support.

For many local people mining development is changing attitudes towards sexuality as well as towards women. While many societies in Papua New Guinea incorporated long periods of male sexual abstinence, there is evidence that in mining towns this is being eroded. Communities report a growing incidence of alcoholism, rape and other forms of violence against women and an increasing incidence of teenage pregnancy.

Mining has excluded women from the principal benefits of pay and employment despite the fact that many of the downsides to mining development are specific to women. The 'factory girl' has come to stand as the image of the modern South East Asian woman who is a victim of 'tiger' economics. But the scratch of the tiger's claw is also felt by the prostitute stalking the miners' barracks, the girl stooped from carrying rice who steals a glance at a passing BMW and the isolated domestic wife pacing her room in the company town.

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