Indonesia gets a real trade union

April 10, 1991

By Judy Addison and Jeannie Rae

Indonesian workers have taken advantage of increased political instability, as jockeying for power increases in the government and military, to form a new, independent, trade union. The organisers are also keen to build upon the international attention focussed on student and peasant actions against environmental destruction.

The inaugural congress of the new union, Serikat Merdeka "Setia Kawan", held in Jakarta in December, was attended by two observers from Australia-Asia Worker Links, a trade union-based organisation committed to linking workers in Australia and Asia.

Sixty delegates attended from 16 provinces, representing about 25,000 workers. Support for Setia Kawan comes from chemical, shoes, leather, garments, textiles, pharmaceuticals, wood, furniture and steel workers and from the "informal" sector, such as taxi and becak (pedicab) drivers. It has no members in the public sector, where unions are banned.

A rash of strikes over the past year, even before President Suharto lifted the 27-year-old strike ban in August, year, suggests that Indonesian workers are ready to fight for improved wages and conditions. "... everyone was just waiting to have someone brave enough to launch it. People are willing", said one of the Setia Kawan unionists. Another spoke of the Polish example as inspirational, saying "grassroots feeling for change is very very strong and very very willing to take risks".

The officially sanctioned All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI) was formed in 1967 by retired army officers to "protect national economic growth" and prevent labour unrest. It is still controlled by military personnel; government ministers and employers are members of its ruling boards. Exposing the SPSI is one way unions overseas can support Indonesian workers. Setia Kawan sees international union recognition, support and protection as a high priority.

Setia Kawan's first public protest took place in Jakarta in the last week of February over non-implementation of the minimum wage. However, its leaders say that much remains to be done to establish it as a national union. This includes continuing efforts to gain full legal status.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs has not allowed Setia Kawan to register formally as a mass organisation but has not yet banned or overtly harassed the union.

The recent rapid expansion of an export manufacturing sector has attracted massive local and foreign investment. Small and large factories have sprung up on the periphery of cities and towns, making textiles, garments, electrical goods, electronic gadgetry, light globes, mosquito coils, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Export earnings have contributed to the growth of a middle class and the appearance of wealth in the big cities (and many tourist destinations). But beyond the boulevards, banks and shopping centres, the gloss quickly deteriorates, as we learned in our visit to the eran, on the outskirts of Jakarta. Huge factory complexes, some employing 5000 workers, are hidden behind 20-metre-high walls topped with barbed wire and guarded by ex-soldiers. The workers are nearly all young (from children of only 10 years) and predominantly female.

Workers are housed inside the compound, three or four to a three-metre-square concrete cell. There is only one water pump for a cell block of 75 and no cooking facilities. After a 12-hour shift, often increased by overtime, workers return exhausted to their cells, buying something to eat from a food vendor on the way. They are not allowed to leave the compound without permission. While electricity is connected, the workers are not allowed to use it.

Paid less than $A1 a day, they do not earn enough to send money back to their families or to visit them. Most of these young people completed high school and had other ambitions but are now stuck in the factories, unable to afford to leave and facing eye and bronchial infections from lint and chemicals, plus the risk of major accidents in unregulated workplaces.

In the past year, workers in these factories have taken industrial action and held demonstrations. These actions occurred without the protection of a union and often in direct conflict with SPSI officials. Union activists are routinely sacked and often arrested and jailed. Unionists expect picket lines and protests to be brutally broken up by the security forces.
Judy Addison is a coordinator with Australia-Asia Worker Links and Jeannie Rae a member of the AAWL women's committee. AAWL can be contacted in Melbourne at PO Box 264, Fitzroy 3068 or telephone (03) 419 5045.

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