Indonesia: Meeting the workers of Solo

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Meeting the workers of Solo

By Edward Johnstone

Solo is a small city by Indonesian standards — around 1 million people. It is also the centre of the textile industry for Central Java. Numerous textile factories, each covering hectares and employing thousands of workers, are clustered around the outskirts. It is here that the uniforms for the Indonesian military are made.

We travelled by car some 30 minutes from central Solo one evening to meet with the organisers of the PPBS, the Centre for Labour Struggle Surakarta (another name for Solo). PPBS is a recently formed trade union, affiliated to the national trade union movement, FNPPBI, whose demands include the repeal of the dual function of the military, a 100% increase in wages, an end to sackings and price increases, and freedom for Dita Sari, the union's elected chairperson.

As we arrived at a small house in the workers' kampung, a meeting of around 15 PPBS organisers was finishing. The subject was a report from the first FNPPBI congress, held earlier in May in Bogor, East Java.

The PPBS organises five factories in the Solo area. The largest, Sytex, employs 13,000 workers, the others an average of 8000. Sytex makes uniforms for the German as well as the Indonesian military. "Tutut" Suharto and former Suharto minister Harmoko own it

The level of consciousness of the workers is high, we were told. Little has changed for the workers since the fall of Suharto. Wages are still only Rp 155,000 per month (A$31). For this workers work seven days a week for eight hours a day. If required, they must work up to 12 hours a shift. Production is on a continuous 24-hour roster.

Under the doctrine of dual function of the military, military personnel are used to intimidate the workers directly on the shop floor. At the Sytex factory, 12 military personnel guard the entrance gate at all times. A further 100 military personnel dressed in workers' uniforms patrol the shop floor, attempting to intimidate the workers from organising any resistance to the oppressive conditions. The factory bosses pay the wages of the military personnel.

"Women workers are more radical than men", we were told by Fitri, a woman organiser at the Tyfontex factory, "because women are more oppressed". Few benefits (such as menstruation leave) guaranteed by Indonesian law are granted by the Solo bosses.

About half of the workers we met were still employed by the factory bosses, organising from within the factory. The other half were "full-timers" for PPBS, having been sacked for their trade union activity.

PPBS does not have the resources to pay these organisers; they rely on donations from the workers for their sustenance. "Workers have a decisive role to play in the struggle for democracy," said Hari, secretary of PPBS. Hari went on to describe the PPBS's staged approach for the achievement of democracy and workers' organisation of production.

At 10pm, we left the workers and returned to central Solo. As we were leaving, many were making ready for bed, ready to resume work and organising in the factories at 5.30 the next morning.