Indonesia: Labour movements on the rise

IN AUGUST this year the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for socially relevant work was given to the 28-year-old firebrand trade union leader from Indonesia – Dita Indah Sari. The award was an implicit international recognition of the role played by workers in the democratisation of this sprawling and populous south-east Asian country.

For those not fully familiar with Dita and her work, she is one of the founders and currently the leader of Indonesia’s most radical trade union – the National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI). She is also one of the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD), which is the main left party to emerge in the last few years of the Suharto dictatorship, which it helped dispose of by generating massive students’ and workers’ movements fighting for democratic rule.

In Indonesia, Dita is a household name since her arrest in 1996 and seven-year sentence in jail for alleged ‘subversion’. She spent three years in jail and was released in 1999, before completing her sentence, after the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, and following an international campaign by left groups and human rights organisations.

“We were fighting for basic democratic rights when Suharto was in power and now the task is to establish a genuine democracy in Indonesia – a democracy of workers and peasants,” Dita told Liberation in an interview a few weeks before winning the Magsaysay award.

In the early nineties, Dita started off as a young student activist while studying at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta and soon jumped into the country’s fledgling independent trade union movement. At that time, despite Indonesia’s haloed, World Bank-certified status as a ‘miracle economy’, the condition of the workers producing this miracle was pathetic.

Used as a source of cheap labour by foreign investors, the legal minimum wage during the Suharto period was around US$1.27, the lowest in Asia after Bangladesh. Much of the trade union movement in the country was controlled by one single government-sanctioned union, which obviously toed the line of the investors and factory owners. The military routinely intervened in labour disputes, and those who tried to form independent unions were arrested, tortured and even killed.

In this midst of this extremely bleak and repressive scenario the FNPBI, initially called the Indonesian Centre of Labour Struggle (PPBI), was born in 1994, and forced to work underground. Along with the Indonesian Trade Union for Workers’ Prosperity (SBSI) and the Free Trade Union Solidarity (SBMS), PPBI became the third independent workers’ organisation to be established in Indonesia since 1965.

Among the key elements of the PPBI’s general program were fighting for increased wages and allowances, improved working conditions and health standards, end of the government’s ‘cheap labour’ policy, the right to establish independent worker organisations, free assembly, free speech and the right to strike, the repeal of anti- worker regulations and laws, an end to military intervention in industrial disputes, direct involvement of workers in all policy formulation which affects them, and an end to discrimination against women workers and child labour.

The demands of the workers and their growing movement around the country found a strong resonance among student activists who went on to question the dual social and political function of the military and the very undemocratic nature of the regime. The rest is history. In May, 1998 as Indonesia reeled under the twin pressures of the Asian economic crisis and growing social unrest repeated student demonstrations in Jakarta forced Suharto to step down ending 32 years of iron-fisted misrule.

Since then Indonesia has formed its first freely elected parliament, released hundreds of political prisoners, agreed to the troubled province of East Timor becoming an independent country and instituted dozens of changes to the national constitution to make it democratic and people-friendly. The political change has meant great advances for the country’s workers’ movement, too.

In June 1999, Indonesia, became one of the few countries in the Asia-Pacific region to ratify three major ILO Conventions that express the principles underpinning freedom of association, non-discrimination and the elimination of forced and child labour.

The then newly elected government of President Abdurrahman Wahid, drastically modified labour legislation scrapping several draconian laws that prevented workers from forming trade unions, and lifted the ban on several trade unions, including the PPBI which renamed itself as the FNPBI. As a result, from a situation in the past where the country’s entire labour force was represented only by one government controlled union now there are 26 major unions in the country and dozens at the regional and grassroots level.

Since the lifting of the ban on the FNPBI the organisation has grown rapidly and now has branches in 13 out of Indonesia’s 26 provinces and over 100,000 members in all industrial sectors. But more than its numbers it is the radical politics of the FNPBI that has made it a formidable force in the Indonesian labour movement.

The FNPBI was at the forefront of a nationwide agitation by workers in May this year. This was against the watering down, under pressure from the domestic and foreign business lobby, of a decree passed last year by the Ministry of Manpower to protect workers from mass retrenchments by employers due to the economic crisis.

The dispute between labour organisations and the Indonesian ministry of manpower is an interesting case study of the kind of anti-labour policies many governments in developing countries are trying to implement under pressure from foreign investors and the IMF.

Under decree No.150/2000, passed by the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower in June last year compensation – consisting of annual leave, allowances for transport, health and housing facilities and severance and service payment, depending on the duration of employment, which was payable to workers losing their jobs either voluntarily or due to dismissal by their employers.

Following protests, from both the domestic and foreign business community, that the compensation required was ‘excessive’, two new decrees No. 78/2001 and 111/2001 were issued earlier this year annulling the requirement that employers provide severance pay and service fees to workers who were sacked for committing major violations – they would only be eligible for regular compensation money. The conditions under which workers could be sacked, as defined by the revised decree was also considered controversial and seen as infringing on their right to legal trade union and protest activity.

The militant labour protests against these revised decrees came in the context of massive loss of jobs and income in the recent years. Indonesian workers, even during the years of economic boom, were among the least paid and protected in south-east Asia, with only around one-third of the country’s workforce of 89 million having permanent jobs in 1997. Since then, several million have lost their jobs and forced to work in the informal sector or join the ranks of the poor. According to trade union activists, given the present uncertain economic situation, workers naturally wish to ensure they receive a proper compensation for their years of service in case they lose their jobs for any reason.

The movement scored a victory when, in July, the outgoing Wahid government finally decided to delay implementation of the modifications to the original decree.

Despite such victories from time to time, Dita and her colleagues at the FNPBI see tough times ahead under the new government headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, whom they accuse of getting too close to the military, conservative bureaucrats and big business – the same troika which ruled Indonesia under Suharto.

Even under the previous Wahid government, with increasing trade union activity and expansion there had also been a backlash against labour activists from the business community and the state security apparatus. Unionists complain of a growing number of attacks on their organisers by paramilitary groups supported by the military and police, and paid for by employers, to intimidate workers or to break their strikes.

During the recent wave of labour protests, activists of the FNPBI for example were assaulted in the West Java town of Bandung by members of an unknown militia. The offices of the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) were sealed by police for ‘provoking workers’. But even more sinister is the attempt to turn the clock back on long-term legislative gains made by trade unions, because of pressure from investors, and more particularly, the IMF with its ‘free-market fundamentalist’ prescriptions.

“Establishing democracy in Indonesia is not just about taking on Suharto, the military and the crony capitalists; it is also about fighting a whole set of neo-liberal economic policies that are being pushed on countries like Indonesia by institutions like the IMF,” says Dita. With an external debt of over 140 billion USD, Indonesia, since the onset of the Asian economic crisis in mid-1997, has been at the mercy of the IMF and other foreign lenders, to roll over loans and obtain cash to keep its economy running.

All through the three decades of former dictator Suharto’s regime, Dita points out, trade unions and worker’s rights were suppressed brutally in the name of fostering economic growth and when the crisis came, it was the workers again who paid the biggest price. According to her, now even as the labour movement grows by leaps and bounds there is the ever-increasing chance of the business-bureaucrat-military nexus trying to use ‘labour unrest’ as an excuse for going back to the previous repressive era.

– Sundaram