Skip to content →

Indonesia – ‘This state was built on the sweat of the workers’

JUNE 30, 2001 – Prior to the raid on the anti-globalization conference in Indonesia, myself and three others (two from Australia and one from Thailand) were able to meet with and interview trade union activists in Jakarta.

We first talked with a young organizer with the Greater Jakarta Labour Union.

What are the conditions like for workers in Indonesia?

Let me give you an example of conditions. Go to the garment factories or the shoe factories. The working day is supposed to be eight hours. But almost every day, if there’s work to be done, they’ll have to do two or three hours of forced overtime, and there’s no time and a half. You can start work and 8 am and not be done until 9 pm.

The bosses pay very low wages. They know the workers can’t live on what they pay. So they let them steal some of what they make. They have calculated that it’s cheaper than paying them. So the workers can steal just so much, and not more.

You’re now allowed to have strikes, and that’s good. But if the company has agreed to re-open talks, you have to stop the strike. If you keep striking, you go to jail.

It’s not always easy to talk politics, to organize, to get strike action going. Most workers are worried just about how they are going to get something to eat tomorrow.

It’s against the law to be fired for your union activity. But they find excuses. The boss will close the factory and move it to another place quite far away. Workers can’t pick up and move like that. So that let’s them get rid of the troublesome ten-year veterans and start over with younger, inexperienced and cheaper labour.

Free trade has been very bad for Indonesia. The prices of rice and gas and other things are kept low by government subsidies. But the IMF wants those subsidies gone. Twice the government has announced they would remove the subsidies, and twice they had to back off. They’re afraid of what workers and the poor will do.

Another thing you should know is about how the name-brand shoes and clothes are made. At a lot of factories, they don’t know what brand they’re making. There are whole factories devoted to just putting on the labels.

Under Suharto, all we could have in the factories were discussion groups, five here, 10 there. After the fall of Suharto suddenly we could reach thousands. We started to complain, “We don’t know each other any more.” But that’s a good problem.

How did you become a union organizer?

I was a university student, studying theatre. My final exam was about Bertolt Brecht, the communist playwright. So that got me started.

Real Trade Unions

We then pile into a car for a long ride to a house on the west of Jakarta. Inside, we meet a group of about 12 trade unionists. One is the chair of the union. Two work in metal factories. The one woman present is the co-ordinator of organizing with women workers. There’s a worker from a bicycle spare parts factory. And one person there does legal advocacy.

The main spokesperson is the General Chairman of the Greater Jakarta Labour Union (SPJ)

What is the state of the union movement in Indonesia?

It’s only in the last year or two that we’ve had real trade unions. Under the old regime people on the ground could do very little. Only now is the process at work of education of the working class. So even though the laws have changed, the process of education is still necessary.

The process of recruitment involves education, but not just education. If you ask workers why they join the union, they will say they are looking for action. If the union has a major success, workers will say, “now I want to get involved.”

Here is an example of a labour victory. There’s a company called Mayora that makes snacks and chewing gum. It employs about 2,500 workers, and 1,361 were sacked because of strike activity. The union had just been formed, so it was a major challenge. To win their reinstatement the union blocked the Bitung and Gatot Subroto toll roads. Workers also slept in at the Labour Department for 18 days and at the company’s main headquarters for seven days. In the end, we won all the jobs back.

So this is a big change from most of the 1990s when we could only organize small underground groups.

What is the relationship between your union and politics?

Labour affairs are not separate from politics because this state was built on the sweat of the workers. The needs of the workers are affected by national and international politics. A big part of that in Indonesia is the heavy presence of the International Monetary Fund. What they have done [imposing price increases for the necessities of life] has shown us that politics and working class issues are inseparable.

I’ve just come back from big demonstrations against globalization in Quebec City. Workers there were linking the institutions of global capitalism to the privatization and deregulation that is wrecking their lives. Is there this type of a mood in Indonesia?

People in Indonesia went to the World Bank. They pointed out to them that 30 per cent of the wealth in Indonesia disappeared through corruption. So why can’t the World Bank cut our debt by 30 per cent? We didn’t have any success with that.

There are struggles here that fit together with those struggles in the West. There is a lot of anti-debt agitation. That was a big thing at this year’s May Day demonstrations. Indonesia is severely affected by international developments. So we know that it’s important for struggles in the West to make links with struggles in Indonesia.

The IMF plays a big part in Indonesian politics. They want subsidies on basic necessities removed. If this happens and prices go up, it would have a really negative impact on workers, making it difficult even to survive.

Any last comments?

You have to understand we are just beginning. The fall of Suharto was the beginning for most real workers’ organizations in Indonesia. In fact, for us, we really didn’t get going until 1999. From 1999 through 2000 and into this year, that is when we had our most success.

Under the New Order regime [Suharto], workers felt themselves to be the most downtrodden. Now they say – this state wouldn’t exist without us.

And workers are starting to make connections. Prices go up, and that’s linked to both the IMF and the billions that Suharto stole from the people. It all comes together.

The prospects for a militant movement are greater the more people become aware of all these issues.

To link these issues, the philosophy of our union is solidarity. When workers are on strike in one place, other workers bring food, bring drinks, bring money.

And even in difficult conditions, we can see results. Ever since we blocked the toll roads, the employers are scared of us, and we’re getting a lot of quick settlements.

© 2001 Paul Kellogg This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license

Published in Archive