Over 8000 workers have been on strike for three months at the giant Freeport mine in West Papua. Five strikers have been shot and killed by Indonesian police, who have admitted that they are paid “pocket money” by Freeport.

This so-called “pocket money” boosts their pay by between 25 to 50 per cent and amounted to a total of $14 million last year.

Freeport’s Grasberg mine is the biggest and most profitable gold and copper mine in world. It is 90 per cent owned by the US-based Freeport McMoRan and 10 per cent by the Indonesian government. Australian mining company Rio Tinto also has a stake in the mine, through a joint venture on a 1995 expansion.

The strikers are asking for the minimum wage to be increased from $1 per hour to $4 per hour, after initially seeking $7.50. Workers also want a pension scheme and community funds.

They recently rejected a 35 per cent pay increase to “up to $1.35” per hour. Freeport says this offer is “more than fair by Indonesian standards”. But it still doesn’t give workers wage parity with any of the other Freeport mines around the world.

Freeport Indonesia has the lowest production costs of all the company’s global operations. The mine’s workers are paid even less than their colleagues in Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Soaring Freeport profits have also led to similar work stoppages at mines in Cerro Verde mine in Peru and in Chile.

Independence struggle
The mine has also been a focal point in the West Papuans’ struggle against Indonesian rule. West Papua was subsumed into Indonesia in 1962, despite the desire for independence amongst its ethnic Melanesian population. A farcical vote to justify Indonesian control involving just 1022 people, less than 1 per cent of its population, followed.

The independence movement has been brutally repressed by the Indonesian military. Recently six people were killed at the Papuan People’s Congress held in October, when Indonesian soldiers opened fire on the peaceful gathering.

Freeport mine is situated at the top of a 40,000 metre high mountain range, which the company has hewn down by 1200 metres and left marked with a huge crater from its open cut mine. As a result landslides are common.

The company’s practice of dumping waste directly into local rivers has meant that they are now “unsuitable for aquatic life”, according to a 2002 report for the company that was leaked to the New York Times.

In 1996 anger amongst the local West Papuans following abuses and killings by security forces erupted in riots which shut down the mine for three days and destroyed $3 million worth of company equipment.

Two thirds of Freeport’s workforce are Indonesians brought in from Java and other parts of the country, according to the Washington Post.

Mineworkers held an earlier eight-day strike in July for a pay rise and are represented by the All Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI). The SPSI was a tame-cat, pro-government union in the era of the Suharto dictatorship (1965-1998). When the talks promised after the July strike broke down, the workers voted to go on strike again in September.

Freeport management have been spiteful from the start, sacking 138 union shop stewards within a week of the start of the September strike. Managers have tried to coerce strikers back to work with threats of sacking and pressured contractors’ employees to scab.

In this context of escalating tensions, the ABC’s Radio Australia reported, in early November, that, “Trade unionists from around the world, including Australia, are in Jakarta, to try to resolve the bitter dispute at the Freeport mine”, including the CFMEU’s Wayne McAndrew.

But the Grasberg strikers can only force Freeport back to the negotiating table by applying the maximum pressure on them through keeping the mine shut. Australian trade unions should be lending their support through international solidarity action.

By Tom Orsag

Messages of support can be sent to SPSI Freeport Secretary Alba Sabang at albar.sabang [at] gmail.com.

The union representing the Freeport workers is asking for financial donations to support the strikers. Account details for donations available at http://x.co/bCT8

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