Organising Indonesia's free trade union

Wednesday, June 19, 1991

During the Trades and Labour Council Indian Ocean Region Conference held in Perth on May 17, Saut Aritonang, general secretary of Indonesia's recently formed free trade union, Serikat Buruh Merdeka (Setiakawan) spoke to Green Left. Shortly after his return to Indonesia, he was kidnapped by military personnel and held incommunicado for four days before being released, all without explanation.

When was Setiakawan formed and how did you become involved?

Setiakawan was formed in September 1990. It arose out of a seminar on working conditions in Indonesia.

In 1980, I was appointed chairperson of the Pharmaceutical and Chemical Union in Bogor, West Java. In 1985, at the second congress of the All Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI), I decided to leave that union.

I had come to believe that the SPSI was not independent. It had become a like a government department, not a union. Union staff, opportunists, used the union as a stepping stone to a government position.

I then began working with a number of non-government organisations [NGOs] and other activists, raising workers' consciousness about working conditions, the labour laws and how to struggle to change their working conditions.

Could you describe working conditions in Indonesia?

Indonesians work a 12-hour day. They have no days off and no holidays except for Lebaran [the end of the Islamic fasting month] and Christmas. They work continuously, like a machine.

After paying for accommodation, for food, there is no money left. There is not even enough for the cost of transport to and from work. There is no money to support a family.

Often both parents are forced to work, but it's still not enough. So many children either don't go to school or, after they finish school, must work as street vendors. There is no money for medicine or for a doctor. Our country is being sold to the multinational corporations, and our people get nothing.

What other forces are involved with Setiakawan?

We are supported by a number of mass organisations and NGOs — many of which were also involved in the formation of Setiakawan. Organisations like SKEPHI, INFIGHT, the Legal Aid Institute, the Institute in Defence of Human Rights. The legal aid institutions have played a key role in assisting us to set up new branches in other provinces.

How large is Setiakawan?

Nationally we have about 35,000 members, although most of our membership is concentrated in the areas around Jakarta, approximately 22,000 to 25,000. We concentrate in the food, beverage and textile industries, and the informal sector like parking, workers in the market.

Our growth has been limited by the fact that we still have to work as an underground organisation. We are also limited financially.

Once the government allows us to organise openly, our membership will grow very rapidly. Indonesian workers know that they will not get any assistance from the SPSI. They know that the Labour Court is only a theatre. All around Jakarta, Setiakawan is well known.

How do you organise?

Much of our organising is done outside of the workplace. If we organise openly in the workplace, our activists are dismissed. Once the membership in a particular company or industry has reached, say, 60%, then we can begin to operate openly.

A major thrust is the training and education of our members: in law, industrial relations, how to build workers' organisations and how they should function.

We accumulate data about a particular company and encourage members to examine the production process — how much they pay the workers and how much profit they make. With this information, workers can approach employers and request a pay rise. If the demands are not met, we go on strike. This education is ongoing; if workers work in shifts, we train in shifts.

We also place a strong emphasis on networking, joint work and establishing links with other mass organisations.

The government has attempted to prevent us establishing new branches or organising in new workplaces. In January, the Ministry of the Interior sent a communication to government departments and industries throughout Indonesia. It stated that if Setiakawan activists are discovered operating in their province, they are not to be assisted in any way. The names of activist

should be passed on to the army or police for interrogation and intimidation.

When we found out, we complained directly to President Suharto, asking him to withdraw the directive. We made it clear that if this was not done, the matter would be taken to the International Labour Organisation. If this kind of interference continued, we would be forced to increase the intensity of our training and, in the long term, create more difficulties for the government.

There were a number of demonstrations against the Gulf War reported in Indonesia. Could you comment on these?

The Indonesian people didn't support the war. Iraq sent communications to many Indonesian organisations explaining that, before Iraq invaded Kuwait, they had discussed the issue with the US. Why, at that time, did the US not say anything to them? The Indonesian masses were very angry. They did not believe the war was a war to liberate Kuwait — this was just used as a justification for pursuing US economic interests in the region.

The US went beyond the stated goal of liberating Kuwait. It was as if they wanted to destroy Iraq's whole society and culture. The Indonesian people feel very strongly for the way the people of Iraq have suffered because of the US aggression.

As representatives of Indonesian workers, we also have concerns about the working conditions of our workers in the Middle East. We have 60,00 workers in Iraq, in Kuwait 15,000. We are just being used as a source of cheap labour for these countries. It is not good for the international prestige of the Indonesian people.

What are Setiakawan's longer term goals?

The Indonesian government has manipulated and distorted the meaning and principles of Panca Sila.* They use Panca Sila to oppress the people. The true Panca Sila lays down the principles for a people's democracy. The government does not believe in these principles.

The present political organisations are not capable of struggling for social change. Their leaders are children of members of government, not able or willing to change the structure. Social transformation, democracy will come from the NGOs and Setiakawan.

Political parties in Indonesia are not grassroots organisations. They don't have a "real" membership. Golkar

[the government party] say they have 3 million, 5 million members. This is not true. People join because they are offered money or because they are afraid.

Setiakawan is growing very rapidly. People are drawn to us because they are convinced we are working to improve their lives. And our membership is very militant. They know their strength does not depend upon Setiakawan, their strength comes from working together.

Many top officials of the established political parties see us growing in strength and influence and have tried to join us. We don't want opportunists like that in Setiakawan. We always respond politely — but don't let them join.

We want to return to the original ideology of Panca Sila, use Panca Sila so that people are no longer oppressed or poor — so people work together to build our society. We want to build a country where people have a sense of solidarity and concern for each other. The original ideology of Panca Sila is very similar to the ideas of socialism.

How do you view attempts to build socialism in other developing countries?

Countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cuba have built a false socialism.

Their error was that they took a foreign ideology and tried to apply it to their own country. Panca Sila is different. In formulating the ideology of Panca Sila, President Sukarno borrowed from Marxism and combined this with Indonesian culture and beliefs. Panca Sila is therefore an ideology which is Indonesia's own.

We know that the struggle to build a new Indonesia will be very difficult, but we are prepared for that, we expect that.

God will bless us in our struggle. If we are struggling for the sake of our members, for the sake of our country, then we are obeying God.

What kind of support are you seeking from Australian unions?

Most important of all, we need moral support: writing letters to the Indonesian government asking that Setiakawan be recognised by the government. Our constitution states that workers have the right to free association.

We want to say to Australian unions, as an act of solidarity with Indonesian workers, send letters to our government. If you have training programs, help us train our workers. If you

can, assist us financially. But most important of all, we need your moral support. The international community must put pressure on the Indonesian government so we can work to improve the lives of Indonesian people.

* Panca Sila is the official Indonesian state philosophy, developed by Sukarno during the independence war against Dutch colonialism. Its five principles are: belief in one god; humanitarianism; the unity of Indonesia; democracy; and social justice.

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