Organising Jakarta's factory workers

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Organising Jakarta's factory workers

JAKARTA — Earlier this month, Green Left Weekly's SAM KING spoke to AGUS from the radical Jakarta factory workers' organisation Komite Buruh untuk Aksi Reformasi (Kobar — Workers' Committee for Reform Action).

Question: When was Kobar established and how does it organise?

Kobar was established as a response to reform actions by Indonesian students last May. We saw that workers were not involved in those actions.

The founders of Kobar are students from the University of Indonesia together with workers who were active before the reform movement began. We believe it's important not to have a separation between the student movement and the people, and are attempting to join the two.

We can learn some lessons from the May mass actions, which were almost all students. Students who argued then that the rallies should join with the people were branded provocateurs and ordered to leave.

That paranoia has to be understood in the context of the riots that occurred in Jakarta, but it was another reason we established Kobar — to prove that when the mass of people have political leadership, they will not riot.

Also we believe that if workers are not involved in the reform actions, working conditions will not change.

Question: What are the working and living conditions like for factory workers?

Before the [economic] crisis the conditions were bad. The minimum wage was about R10,500 (about US$2) per day. Workers couldn't buy secondary items or save; the money was used for food and rent.

Since the crisis hit, the minimum wage has shrunk by 75%. With inflation so high, 80% last year, it is tough to make a living. Usually two, three or sometimes four workers live together in one room, arranging to use it based on their working shifts.

Workers usually receive R1000 per day from the factory for lunch and with this they can buy cheap, unhealthy food. Healthier meals cost around R2000 each.

Government and company policy since the onset of the crisis has been to carry out mass dismissals. This has created an environment in which workers are afraid to take action in case they lose their jobs. Millions have lost their jobs already.

Our duty is to make workers confident to take the initiative and make bosses afraid to sack.

Question: Please explain how Kobar organises workers.

On first contact with workers, we discuss their situation, including why the conditions are so bad. We introduce the idea that they can change these conditions through united struggle, first on the factory level, then locally, regionally and nationally.

We carry out education for workers on economics, politics and the history of workers' struggle. We explain why workers are being exploited.

Question: What has been the impact of 32 years of military rule on workers' organisation? Is there still military suppression of workers' organisations?

Under Suharto the military would disband our meetings. Now they meet with local authorities and inform them of our meetings. The military will drive past meetings to intimidate workers, and when there is a strike, they usually blockade the factory exit.

During the Maspion strike in Surabaya last month the military violently dispersed the workers. It's clear that the military are continuing to repress workers in struggle.

On of the strongest legacies of the dictatorship is that many workers think that struggling means losing their job. One way we are trying to overcome this problem is to get our movement legalised.

One of our main demands is the legalisation of trade unions at the factory level. Employers try to scare workers, such as with rumours that Kobar is communist. We believe that legalisation will help us counter those kinds of fears and to challenge the military's intimidation of the workers' movement.

Question: What role are the various political parties playing in the workers' struggle?

The major political parties are not concerned with the workers' movement. Like the Australian Labor Party, they use workers to get elected. The fact that the major political parties are bourgeois is evident from their past records.

If we look at the history of the People's Democratic Party (PRD), it has always backed struggles of workers. PRD leader Dita Sari is in jail for leading the workers' movement.

Maybe Muchtar Pakpahan struggled in the past, but now that he is released from jail, he does nothing for workers.

Question: How can people overseas assist Kobar and the Indonesian workers' struggle?

Many overseas organisations are meeting with us. This is important, given the assistance that other governments give Habibie and the moderate opposition such as Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Organisations that help us include the Democratic Socialist Party from Australia and the Socialist Workers Party from Britain. Also left individuals have donated money. Of course, financial assistance is one way people overseas can continue to help.

Question: What about the Australian Council of Trade Unions? It used to support Suharto's puppet union, the SPSI.

When Suharto fell, the SPSI split into SPSI and SPSI Reform. The ACTU now formally supports SPSI Reform.

Before the split, that union was never real — it didn't come from the workers; it just tried to bargain with the regime. Since the split, nothing has changed. Both wings still play the same role.

Question: What will factory workers be doing during the election campaign?

Kobar plans to use the fact that people will be thinking more about politics during the election campaign to educate and mobilise people, involve them in any activity that will raise political awareness. This is our duty as a radical organisation.