Melati was trained to peel 600 shrimp in an hour–one every six seconds. That was her target, at work in a factory in Indonesia. She never met it.
After finishing high school, Melati wanted to earn money so that she could go to college—and that’s how she ended up peeling shrimp.
When she was working in the factory, she lived with seven other people in a tiny 2.5- by 3-meter (8-foot by 10-foot) dorm room. It was provided by her employer, but she paid rent. The water in the dirty, smelly bathroom did not work properly—often it ran out altogether. “There was a long line just to take a shower,” says Melati. “And we couldn't close the door.”
Melati often wondered about her work timetable. She used to get the schedule for the next working day by phone, one day in advance. In fact, her team leader could contact her at any point, telling her to come to work. “I couldn’t rest properly,” she says. “I had to wait to find out what time I needed to go to work.”
Conditions at the factory were dangerous. When the company put her to work cleaning the conveyor belt with a chlorine mixture, the fumes meant she struggled to breathe. “At 11:30pm when I came home, I still couldn’t breathe properly,” she says.
Worse, the chlorine burned Melati’s skin. “I was given plastic gloves because we ran out of rubber gloves,” she tells us. They didn’t cover her beyond her wrists, and she had to put her arms into the bucket of chlorine mixture to prepare the cleaning cloth. “My hand was burning,” she says, “and I was out of breath because of the strong chlorine.”
Several workers told us they face the indignity of not being allowed to bring sanitary pads to work. “I could only change my menstruation pad when I had my rest time in the dorm,” says Melati. “I used three menstruation pads which I put in place all at once at the dorm before going to the factory. Then at work I took them off one by one at the toilet. It was uncomfortable, especially if I had to walk.” As well as causing discomfort and leaving embarrassing stains, keeping a dirty pad in place can lead to infections.
Melati has now left the company. With pay based on impossible targets, and unbearable working conditions, she couldn’t continue. For now, her dreams of putting some money aside to go to college are still out of reach.