In the slums of Jakarta: workers fight to organise

Issue 

In January and February, JO BROWN travelled in Java and met activists in the Indonesian students' and workers' movements. Here she describes visiting the slum areas around Jakarta that are home to the new urban working class.

The contrasts and contradictions of Indonesia are sharpest today in Jakarta. The inner city is a jungle of new high-rise banks, offices and apartments. There are shopping malls lit with neon signs where the rich can shop in air conditioned comfort.

But the other side can be seen next to this visible wealth. In the streets, buses, cars and motorcycles fight through traffic jams to transport the continuous flow of people. Beside many large roads are rows of street vendors selling everything from food to engine parts, although in the streets around the centre of the city all vendors were banned during the APEC meeting late last year, and have not yet returned.

There are also beggars, and children trying to sell food, newspapers and other small objects. Of the 12 million people living in Jakarta, it is estimated that half are poor. As the economy grows, the gap between rich and poor is growing too.

Outside the centre of the city are the rapidly expanding manufacturing areas such as Pluit, Tanggerang and Bogor where hundreds of factories are situated behind walls topped with barbed wire and with guards at the gates. It is not clear whether this to keep workers in or out, but with some 1130 strikes in Indonesia in 1994, and 516 of these in the area around Jakarta, factory owners clearly feel the need to keep close control over their employees.

Nearby these huge industrial estates are equally large communities of living quarters in which live tens of thousands of workers. It is common to find only one or two toilets for a community of 50 to 100 workers, and no clean water supply, so that workers are forced to buy expensive bottled water. Pluit is one of the most overcrowded and polluted of these areas; one worker activist I met joked that Pluit and the nearby area of Tanggerang were competing for the title of worst living conditions in Indonesia.

Catching a crowded minibus to Pluit, we passed the harbour, which looked like a huge open sewer. The water was black, and a smell of rotting garbage filled the air.

Pluit itself had a certain resemblance to descriptions of workers' conditions in Europe during the industrial revolution. The streets were extremely narrow and in front of the houses ran open drains that seemed to be filled with raw sewage. Again, the smell was overwhelming.

Small, roughly built houses crowded together, their balconies sagging over the streets draped with washing. Women washed clothes in doorways, and hundreds of children played in the dirt, often climbing into the drains to use them as toilets. Many had rashes or the big glazed eyes of malnutrition.

I visited the room which was the home of four young women about 17 to 20 years old. It was about two metres square, and the women slept on the damp, sloping floor. They had no furniture except a canvas frame that served as a cupboard, and a few framed photos on the wall. They also had a radio that had been bought by a boyfriend.

The room cost them Rp40,000 per month, and extra for the electricity, while they earn only about Rp3600 ($2) a day for six days' work. This is the minimum wage, and many workers earn less even though the government estimates that about Rp6000 per day is required to meet basic human needs.

They work in a factory producing metal biscuit tins for seven hours a day, receiving Rp300 for food, which is only enough to buy one egg or a bowl of rice. The conditions in the factory are unsafe, with poor ventilation and no safety precautions for the machinists; one of the young women had been forced to leave the factory when her lung collapsed due to inhaling fumes.

There are many accidents, and compensation is inadequate and difficult to get. For example, the loss of a finger would earn Rp100,000 compensation (about $70) even though it would probably lead to permanent unemployability.

In the industrial area of Tanggerang I spoke with a group of workers who were all under 25 and told the familiar story of leaving the village of their family at 15 or 16 to move to the city after their family was forced off its land by the government or military.

This story is the almost universal experience of the new generation of factory workers. They do not earn enough to send money back to their families, and must work overtime for more than a month to afford to visit their family for the Muslim holiday. The traditional village extended family has been destroyed for this generation, and it is hard to imagine how they will produce the next generation of workers without the opportunity to form some type of family unit.

Some of these workers had been involved in recent strikes and spoke of harassment by the military. It is common for the military to be called in to deal with strikes and demonstrations, and the strike leaders are often arrested at the demonstration or in the weeks afterward.

Worker organisers learn to live with the constant threat of arrest and possibly torture. One young woman who had led the organisation of a strike had been forced to leave her job and go into hiding after military personnel visited her home and threatened her family.

Mainly employed in textiles and electronics factories, they receive around Rp3600. The food and travel allowance which is meant to be given in addition to the minimum wage is instead deducted from it. They explained that they also had to buy their own uniform for Rp11,000, and to pay for tools such as scissors and needles that are required for their work. Workers who get sick are not guaranteed an income, and women who become pregnant are generally fired.

In Bogor I joined a meeting of workers from a large factory of 10,000 employees in discussion with an organiser from PPBI, the new workers' organisation. She spoke with them for nearly four hours, asking about the conditions of their workplace and trying to determine what their main concerns and problems were. She then talked with them about the experience of other successful strikes and about the history of the workers' movement in Indonesia.

Finally she asked them about the role of the SPSI, the government "trade union". They explained that the SPSI representatives in their factory had never supported their demands and had told them not to strike. Because SPSI officials are paid by the government, they do not care about workers interests, they said. They concluded that they needed to build a real, independent, trade union that could defend their rights.

The growing level of consciousness and organisation suggests that the level of strikes and demonstrations will increase in the next year. At the same time, repression from the Suharto government will continue as the regime tries to maintain the extremely low wages that make Indonesia attractive to foreign companies. The struggle for democracy and workers rights in Indonesia will require our ongoing solidarity.

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