Rising workers’ movement in Indonesia beats back low pay and contract work

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Indonesia is being shaken by a strike wave, with a growth in workers’ confidence to fight against low wages and insecure casual contracts. Particularly in the industrial area of Bekasi, that borders the east of Jakarta, demonstrations, actions, mass meetings and protests are now an almost daily occurrence.

While the Indonesian economy continues to grow, and foreign investment, particularly from Singapore, Japan and South Korea increases, Indonesian workers are becoming fed up with terrible conditions in the workplaces. In particular they are protesting against the practice of outsourcing and contract work (which makes it very easy for employers to sack workers that unionise, citing the excuse their contract has expired) as well as low wages, unpaid overtime, wage cutting, and employers not providing basic social security and welfare as required by law.

Union activists trace the rise in strikes to confidence workers across Indonesia have drawn from strike victories in recent years. In 2011 Freeport workers in Papua won large wage increases after months on strike; and a trade union campaign succeeded in forcing the passage of a new social security law through parliament.

Indonesian workers flood out onto the streets of Bekasi near Jakarta, which is being staken by a strike waveThis led to increased workers’ struggle culminating in the mass strike on the January 27, 2012 demanding an increase in the minimum wage that blocked the large toll roads of Jakarta, essentially paralysing the city. This action and subsequent strikes have largely been led by Buruh Bergerak Bekasi (an alliance that includes the major union confederations FSMPI and KSPSI) as well as Sekber Buruh (an alliance of radical unions) but was attended by a large section of the workforce that is independent, or has not yet unionised.

The momentum continued through 2012 with over three million workers taking to the streets in a nation-wide strike on October 3 to demand an end to outsourcing and low wages.

This resulted in another win for workers, with outsourcing being made illegal and many local governments raising the minimum wage significantly, such as in Jakarta where the minimum wage increased by 44 per cent from the start of 2013. However, after protests from business President Yudhoyono gave labour-intensive industries like textiles and small businesses an exemption as well as allowing outsourcing to continue in five sectors.

Business organisations, such as the Indonesian Employers Association (APINDO) continue to pressure Yudhoyono, threatening to move production overseas if militant union action is not stopped. However, with the rising cost of basic goods in 2013, including the cost of electricity and fuel, the majority of workers will continue to find it difficult to make ends meet despite the increase in wages.

In recent months factory based struggles have continued, often with workers from surrounding factories joining the actions in solidarity.

Solidarity met with Lilis, who works for a factory producing wigs in Bekasi, to find out more about what the workers are fighting for.

Can you explain about how workers at your factory started to become active?

On September 2, 2012 we officially joined the union federation of ‘Progresip’. There are about 1000 workers in our factory, mostly women, and almost all of them have joined the union. We joined because we want all contract and casual workers to receive permanent positions. Also we are fighting for basic rights that include maternity leave, our uniforms be replaced every two years, and our meals provided without the money being cut from our wages.

What action have you taken so far and has it had a result?

On September 7, 2012 we took strike action from 9am to 9:30pm. We are all women, only 42 men. Together everyone waited in front of the factory while 12 of us, the workplace union leaders, went upstairs to negotiate with the company. And we won! They promised everyone would be made full time workers and we also won all the basic rights we had been demanding. However, since then not all these things have been implemented. For example, we still don’t receive a reasonable food and transport allowance.

Also, on December 6, we 12 organisers were called in by the police. They said that our action on September 7 had been illegal, so since then we have been banned from entering the factory. Every morning we go to the factory ready to work but are stopped from entering.

When the other workers first heard about this they straight away wanted to strike and support us. But we have decided not to provoke the bosses, instead for now we are trying the legal route. But we are ready to strike again if that fails.

What about the national strike on the October 3? Did the workers at your factory take part in it?

Yes, we joined the three million workers. All the streets in Bekasi were blocked with workers. I was speechless and so happy to see so many workers, uniting and struggling together even though we come from different unions and organisations. If we are just one factory, it’s not possible that we can win. But if we all unite then we can. And that is not only with the national strike, but even now if one factory strikes many others come to support them, not just from the union ‘Progresip’ but from other unions too.

The success of strike action in factories like Lilis’ has given confidence to workers in more and more factories to also unionise and take part in actions.

Leha is employed by the same company, but at another factory in the region of Subang not far from Bekasi, also producing wigs. Workers at this factory aren’t yet part of a union but are keen to establish one.

While Leha and Lilis work for the same company, Leha and other employees of the Subang factory don’t receive free transport or food and are frequently forced to work two hours overtime. They are paid less than the workers at the other factory and the company has failed to provide the majority of the workers with the basic social insurance they are legally entitled to.

Five days a week, from 7am to 5pm, plus over-time, the workers rush to meet production targets, and their work is constantly monitored by management and “leaders” that do hourly inspections. Fear of their contracts not being extended and lack of knowledge about their rights has kept complaints to a minimum until now.

“The problem is that the majority of workers are women and they are scared to take action in case they lose their jobs,” explained Leha. “But I am certain that they will join us once we start building a union. After the workers [at the other company’s plant in Bekasi] demonstrated a few months ago, we saw a difference in our conditions here in Subang. For example, the company started paying us for maternity leave and our contracts were extended to two years.”

Strikes and workers’ actions are likely to continue into 2013. Workers are becoming increasingly confident and conscious of the fact that united they can win.

However, there have been a couple of major setbacks for the movement, the first being that many union leaders have signed an “industrial harmony” agreement with local authorities, employer organisations and police that restricts workers’ ability to strike and take action.

Another major problem is the use of thugs and even the army by companies against the workers in an attempt to break up the unions. At the plant in Bekasi in December, approximately 100 workers were called into the office of management. They were threatened by thugs trying to force them to sign a document that would make them members of the company established union.

A fight broke out, and not for the first time, the employees of the company, including a pregnant woman, experienced brutal violence from hired thugs. However this has not broken the workers’ spirits, but instead has increased their anger. The following day the workers at this particular plant joined an action of over 1000 members of the union federation ‘Progresip’ to demand an end to union busting.

By Vivian Honan

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