Indonesia: a system built on corruption

March 18, 1992

The leak last week of an Australian government document on corruption involving the family of Indonesian President Suharto tells only a small part of the story. A 300-page report on the human rights situation in Indonesia, released last month by the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation, documents widespread exploitation and oppression. The report was compiled by 11 organisations involved in human rights activism, as well as Setia Kawan, the first attempt at a free trade union in Indonesia, and women's, consumers and community health organisations. MAX LANE reports.

The Legal Aid Foundation report looks not only at rights such as freedom of speech and assembly, but also at the socioeconomic conditions of workers, peasants and fishermen.

It outlines new measures to control the election process, to be staged once again in June. In the middle of 1991, it was announced that all candidates would have to undergo screening (called penelitian khusus [special research] or LITSUS) to check whether they had any involvement in the Communist Party of Indonesia before 1965 and its so-called attempted coup. The screening also checks the extent to which any candidate might be influenced by Marxist-Leninist teachings.

Carrying out the screening is the Body for Coordination for National Stability and Security (BAKORSTANAS), which is dominated by the military. All candidates for provincial, district level and national parliaments must subject themselves to interviews.

According to the report, screening had also taken place in the past, but was a bit of a formality, with candidates from the three permitted political parties simply filling in a form.


This time, candidates are required to be interviewed by military officers, and the questions are also getting broader. They are asked which political figures they admire, what their views are on a range of issues and their attitudes to the various pro-democracy and anti-Suharto groups.

The report also lists critical responses from elite figures, many of them chafing at having to turn up at BAKORSTANAS headquarters for an interview. Several candidates failed their screening, especially in the provinces. Some of the reasons included: "insufficient intellectual calibre", "unable to show school certificates" and, of course, "argued in the interview".

The government party, GOLKAR, was able to filter its candidates itself. According to the report, its final list of candidates has to be vetted by the chair of the Board of Supervisors — Suharto.

As a result, a number of outspoken supporters of political liberalisation, mainly army officers, were removed from the GOLKAR list. These included a police colonel and a general who is the current speaker of the parliament. The latter had introduced such as insisting that ministers answer parliamentarians' questions in person and not through the mail. A number of prominent intellectuals were also removed.

The report also canvassed political trials in Aceh, North Sumatra and Lampung, South Sumatra.

It noted the harassment and interrogation of human rights activists Indro Cahyono and Haji Princen, outspoken supporters of the rights of East Timorese students to demonstrate in Jakarta after the Dili massacre. It also listed the banning of poetry readings by Rendra and of critical theatre performances, and police raids on pro-democracy meetings in people's private homes.

The report said that 26 publications had been banned over the previous year, including Japanese academic Yoshihara Kunia's Ersatz Capitalism in Southeast Asia, a book on the Islamic nationalist movement in the 1920s, a newsletter and a pro-Islamic booklet on the Gulf War.

Workers and democracy

The report gives special attention to workers. It explains:

"Because the capitalists cannot be relied upon to struggle to uphold democracy and human rights and to weaken the stranglehold of the state, we must rely upon other social groups such as workers and those people being pushed off their land to widen the scope for this struggle. Strikes and demonstrations by workers over the last few years have opened up more opportunities."

The number of strikes increased 300% during 1990 and even more in 1991. According to the minister for labour, there were 61 workers' demonstrations in 1990. In the first few months of 1991 alone, his department had recorded 79 demonstrations.

Strikes have taken place in almost all major industrial centres and have involved 10-12,000 workers at any one time. Many have taken place in Tangerang and Bekasi, the new big industrial suburbs outside Jakarta. Most strikes have demanded payment of the minimum wage.

In Tangerang, the official union recorded 19 strikes between December 1990 and May 1991, involving more than 20,000 workers. In Central Java, official figures record 432 strikes in 1989, 443 in 1990 and 456 in 1991. In 1991 this resulted in 288 sackings.

There have also been two attempts to establish non-government unions: the Serikat Buruh Merdeka Setia Kawan (Solidarity Free Trade Union) and the Transportation Trade Union, based on taxi drivers. Both are still small and struggling. Neither has legal recognition. According to a 1987 ministerial directive, a workers' organisation can receive legal recognition only if it has branches in 20 provinces, with 100 sub-branches at district level and union chapters operating in 1000 factories!

Starvation wages

The official minimum wage in Jakarta is Rp2100 (A$1.30) per day. Even al trade union and the American Asian Free Labor Institute, this is only 31% of what is officially considered the minimum for physical survival (known as the KFM: kebutuhan fisik minimum — minimum physical needs). Another measure used in official statistics is the KHM (kebutuhan hidup minimum — minimum life needs). The officially sanctioned figure for one month is Rp145,118, or Rp4837 per day if a worker worked seven days a week!

The inadequacy of the amount was drawn out even more by the report when it listed the real costs of living for a woman worker with a child during one month. These came to a total of Rp268,900, almost twice the official KHM figure, even without anything for things like cosmetics, money to send home to family in the village, newspapers, books, cinema, visits to the doctor or prescription medicines.

Many of the items on the KFM basket are also out of date. For example, it provides an amount for footwear based on a worker needing only thongs, and for bedding only a piece of woven bamboo.

Yet many workers are not paid even the official minimum wage, let alone the KFM or KHM. The report quotes the official government union as saying that, of the 1200 factories operating in Tangerang, only 30-40% pay the minimum wage. The Bekasi branch of the union gives similar figures.

The minimum wage is lower outside Jakarta because of the lower costs of living. But, again, workers are not paid that minimum. Rubber plantation workers in the mountains are paid Rp1250 per day, 35% below the minimum wage. Women tea leaf pickers, for back-breaking work, are paid Rp50 per kg. Working a very long hours, they can collect 20 kg on a good day, earning only Rp1000.

Employees in the big state-owned shipping company earn between 20,000 and 70,000 rupiah a month. The wage of the director is Rp7 million, 350-100 times greater — not including extras.

Many workers are not paid at all, or have their pay delayed indefinitely. According to the government-backed union, the Indonesian National Shipowners Association owes dock workers Rp2.8 billion in unpaid wages — almost A$2 million.

Other abuses documented in the report include child labour on very long shifts. One light globe factory worked children in shifts from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m.; they were paid only Rp450 a day. The lighting, for detailed work, was very poor, and many children had their eyesight damaged. In another factory, young girls were kept working without any pay for up to three years. Some were tortured and left paralysed.

A big company in East Java was discovered locking its workers in the workplace. Women workers in the ABC battery factory were worked 12 hours a day but paid for only eight hours, and even then at a rate below the official level.

Women workers

Women workers usually suffer the worst wages, hours and conditions. They often also suffer other forms of abuse and maltreatment. Women are usually automatically fired if they become pregnant, usually without bonus or other assistance. They are sometimes obliged to stay in factory "hostels", which are run with an iron hand. This ensures they will work overtime whenever it is required, and allows the company to control the women's social life.

The report cites examples of appalling conditions in the hostels. One run by a textile company provided no electricity, only a single kerosene lamp. For 75 workers there were 25 rooms, two water pumps and one toilet. The bath area was partitioned off by a torn piece of plastic.

Some factories have insisted that new women workers be examined to check that they are still virgins. The examination is usually carried out by medically unqualified male staff. Women are often also threatened with sacking, fines or other punishment if they refuse sex with supervisory staff.

According to the report, in one cigarette factory in East Java, women who fall pregnant after being forced to have intercourse with supervisory staff are lotteried off to other male employees as wives.

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