Pelalawan, Riau. Working as a forklift driver was a job that Lita Safriana, 22, never dreamed of.
Being forklift driver is not a common job aspiration for women in Indonesia, but that has not discouraged the high school graduate to take the job and the responsibility to be part of the production chain in a giant pulp and paper company.
"When I just started, I drove the forklift straight into a wall at the factory. I broke cardboard pallets, and reams of papers that I was supposed to transport," Lita recalled. "But people think I'm a natural now."
Lita now works at Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper's manufacturing complex in Pangkalan Kerinci, a town in Pelalawan, Riau, on the island of Sumatra.
At this facility, RAPP — the operations unit of global pulp and paper industry leader Asia Pacific Resources International (APRIL Group) — produced 850,000 tons of paper per year.
Lita's job is to transport packaged paper products from the complex's so-called "flexi area" into a warehouse using the forklift. On every delivery, she lifts and transports from 500 kilogram to 1 ton of wrapped paper products.
Flexi area is a specific area within the 1,750-hectare manufacturing complex where RAPP runs a machine that can cut paper into various sizes.
Promoting Gender Equality
Lita – who is employed in the pulp and paper mill division producing "PaperOne" office paper products which are sold in more than 75 countries – realizes she has to do everything right, even though at first she felt awkward working as a female forklift driver.
"This job pays better than all my previous one," Lita, who has been working at the manufacturing complex for a year and 2 months, said.
"People used to think this is a job for men. There are many scary stories going around about working in a factory like this, where accidents happen," Lita said. Before taking on the job at the factory, Lita worked as an admin staff at a local health clinic and as a salesgirl in Pangkalan Kerinci.
"But having worked here for more than a year, I can say those scary stories are just myths. At first I felt odd driving a forklift, the other workers were staring at me. But now no one bats an eyelid," Lita said.
"Accidents do happen," she added, "But only if we ignore the safety instructions."
Novriadi, the shift superintendent who supervises Lita's working area said RAPP's manufacturing complex has been using the service of female forklift driver since 2006.
"This job needs you to be extra careful, and women are better at being extra careful than men," he said.
For each delivery to the warehouse, Lita could be carrying around Rp 5 million ($375) worth of paper products. If anything happens to them, they will be labeled as "rejects" and be thrown away, Novriadi said.
There are 12 female staff in the flexi area supervised by Novriadi, out of a total of 23 workers, all of whom are outsourced from a local company called Riau Duta Berlian.
In a mill that uses world-class engineering and technology to produce quality pulp and paper products that are sold around the world, Novriadi said safety is always the first priority. A warning letter from him is given for anyone ignoring safety instructions.
A forklift driver like Lita typically earns more than the regional monthly minimum wage in Pelalawan, which this year is set at Rp 2.35 million.
For Lita, who has lost her father, the job is not just important to support her family's income, but also her pride.
"I have to support my mother and five siblings. I have a brother, but he is working odd jobs in a plantation, not enough to support the whole family," she said.
But when asked how she feels about her job, Lita smiled.
"Not every woman can drive a forklift. Some people in my hometown don't even know what a forklift is," she said with a laugh.
Lita said she had to beat 52 other applicants to drive the forklift at RAPP.
"It feels different to driving a car since it's the back wheels that you have to control and maneuver. Maybe it feels like when you drive your car in reverse," Lita said.
The funny thing is, even though she has been driving a forklift for more than a year, Lita still does not know how to drive a car.
Driver of Local Economy
Lita, who grew up in Sering, a village in Pelalawan, said RAPP's presence has benefited her community a lot.
"I still remember when Sering didn't have electricity," Lita said.
Now, electricity produced by the manufacturing complex can also be enjoyed by the local community, including Lita's village, which is located near the complex.
"It is something that you can be proud of, to work here," she said, adding that the local community has also enjoyed the company's other contributions to its infrastructure, especially roads, which have been very useful.
Having been in the area for more than 22 years, the APRIL Group now serves as the main economic driver for the region where it operates its pulp and paper mill, which is one of the biggest in Southeast Asia.
Local government data show there were only 200 households in Pangkalan Kerinci when the company started its operation.
Today, the town has become the district's capital and home to 150,000 people. April Group now contributes 6.9 percent of Riau’s non-oil-and-gas GDP.
The company's data show it employees 5,500 workers directly and 20,000 indirectly in its forest plantation. The company has had a multiplier effect in Riau's employment rate, having so far created 90,000 job opportunities in various areas.