Three Australian unionists, visiting Indonesia as part of a delegation to a South-East Asian asbestos conference, had their passports seized and were deported from Indonesia after visiting a picket line organised by transport workers in Jakarta.
The unionists, including Jackie Kriz, a member of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation and President of Geelong Trades and Labour Council, have been barred from re-entering Indonesia for six months. They were told by the Indonesian department of immigration they could apply to have the ban lifted after that time.
The day before the conference, the unionists decided to visit the picket line at the invitation of the SBTPI, the union organising Indonesian transport and port workers. Kriz told Green Left Weekly the picket had successfully prevented a number of trucks from leaving the depot to supply fuel to petrol stations. In response, the government had organised the army to work as “strike breakers” to drive the trucks through the picket line.
Kriz said: "According to union members I spoke to, shortly after the army had commenced this exercise there were at least two major accidents caused by army drivers, who were ill-equipped to take on such a task.
"Our only crime, it seems, was to visit a picket line and offer our solidarity. All we did was offer simple greetings, shake a few hands and give a union T shirt — hardly an act of treason."
The three unionists were taken out of the conference and questioned as a group in front of 10 immigration officials before having their passports confiscated. They had to attend the immigration office the following day for a second round of interrogation before being informed of their fate. They were allowed to return home on their originally booked flight, but were officially “deported” with the six-month ban in place.
Kriz told Green Left Weekly, "It was an extremely stressful time. We were questioned on and off for hours, we were shown multiple photographs of us at the picket line and we were followed for three days in Jakarta."
Their Indonesian counterparts told the unionists this was an extremely unusual act by the government and was excessively harsh punishment. But it could be seen in the context of a tumultuous, heightened week of political turmoil and government sensitivity.
Jakarta was gearing for up for the biggest protest rally seen in years, due to be held the day after the unionists were interviewed by Indonesian officials. The rally was organised by Muslims, who accused Governor Ahok, a minority Christian, of insulting the Koran.
As a result of the protests, President Joko Widodo cancelled a visit to Australia. When Widodo does come to Australia, he will meet with the trade minister Steve Ciobo to progress a free trade agreement between the two countries.
The practice of foreign unionists visiting picket lines to show solidarity is commonplace in many countries. But in Indonesia it is against the law to “participate” in the activity and one can only “observe”. But there is a fine line between the spirit and the interpretation of this law, according to the unionists involved.
"We were only there for 10 minutes and were not out the front holding placards, chanting or stopping the trucks — hardly active participation," Kriz said. "It seems to me that they interpret the term ‘participation’ as they see fit."
Kriz said she is concerned that the actions of government officials is a sign of a general crackdown on dissent.
She said: "When I asked the member of the SBTPI what they were fighting for, he told me they were fighting against casualisation. It was then I realised that no matter which country we're in, we are all fighting for the same things. The free trade agreement between the two countries is only going to make this worse."