“Jepara has a long history of woodworking and small enterprises, with both men and women playing a part. But women probably make half what men do,” says Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientist Herry Purnomo. Purnomo has worked in the area for years with projects that aim to increase women’s skills in the industry and to boost the use of sustainably sourced wood, which contributes to improved market access and conservation priorities.
Zaekah works at one of Jepara’s small workshops; she is a grandmother who does the manual labor needed for small industries to produce furniture that sits in cafes in Sydney and hotels in Abu Dhabi.
Bent over slabs of teakwood, alternately with a belt sander and old-fashioned sandpaper, sawdust creates a hot cloud around her and her colleagues who are settled on small stools.
“I make IDR 35,000 [USD 2.60] a day,” she states simply when asked about her wages.
Workshop owner and Zaekah’s boss Mbak Njum says that it is becoming harder to find women like Zaekah to sand and finish the furniture produced in her shop, jobs usually done by women. Garment factories are moving into the area, and offer alluring job opportunities to young women, with better pay and working conditions free of sawdust and splinters.
This narrative of a novel new industry arriving may, in a strange turn, echo the story those in Jepara tell of the town’s artisanal origins, but now with the modern twist of global business.
Triana, the office manager at Mbak Njum’s, describes the skills required of women in the workshop.
“I think women are more attentive when they sand furniture, because they don’t just rub the pieces, they understand the technique. Our job might not be perfect, but having workers to do this sanding work is one reason why companies can do business,” she says.
There is no doubt the work is gendered, with women handling finishing tasks such as sanding and adding appliques, and men working large logs of teak at sawmills, as well as doing carving and artisanal work. There are of course exceptions, like Nur Hamidah and the group of women she works with, who are part of a dedicated group of female carvers in the area.
“Women generally have little control over resources, decision-making and inputs in product development, and are particularly vulnerable to changes in demand and supply, and other disruptions that occur in the marketplace,” Purnomo says.
“The situation for women needs to be improved,” he adds. One step has been the creation of the Jepara Women Entrepreneur’s (JWE) Association few years ago, a group that works for better opportunities for women in all aspects of the trade.
With Jepara exporting goods worth about USD 150 million a year – approximately 10 percent of the country’s total exports – the industry is an important one, especially in a country presided over by a furniture seller. So improving pay and conditions for women in the area would be a major step forward in a crucial industry.