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Vol. 76/No. 39      October 29, 2012

‘It’s our right to join union’:
‘Militant’ talks with Indonesian workers about their struggles
(feature article)

Last week’s issue reported on the Oct. 3 national strike in Indonesia, which involved hundreds of thousands of workers and represented the first nationwide protest strike for more than half a century.

Below we feature reporters’ notebook entries by two members of a Militant reporting team to the country that took place Sept. 16-24, leading up to the one-day workers’ action.

The reporting team of three worker-correspondents from Australia and New Zealand was hosted by Kalyanamitra, a Jakarta-based organization that campaigns for women’s rights. They interviewed unionists, farmers, students and women’s rights fighters in both Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, and Yogyakarta.


JAKARTA, Indonesia, Sunday, Sept. 16—We take part in a union rally that builds participation in the Oct. 3 national strike. Held in a public park in Bekasi, an industrial area of Jakarta, the action has been called by the Congress of Indonesian Unions Alliance (KASBI).

On our way to the rally, our translator Ken Ndaru explains the importance of the central demand of the coming strike: to end “outsourcing”—the growing use by employers of short-term contract labor. Such workers, he says, “are not protected under the country’s labor laws, and are also not entitled to union coverage. It’s happening across the country, in textile especially.”

Most of the roughly 500 workers appear to be in their teens or twenties.

“We need a living wage, not just a minimum wage,” Neneng Hasanah told Militant reporters. The official minimum wage is around 1,500 million rupiah per month (US$156).

She works as a sewing machinist at PT Dada (Dada Ltd.) Indonesia, a garment factory close to Bandung that manufactures clothes under the Adidas brand.

Ndaru tells us that he served two years in jail under the military-based regime of Suharto for involvement in protests against the regime. He was released after the dictator’s resignation in 1998.


Monday, Sept. 17—Day two finds us in Muara Baru, Jakarta’s central fishing port. In a close-packed area of workers’ housing, we meet Mini and Lasuti, two leaders of a women’s group initiated by Kalyanamitra in 2006.

They tell us that many women work in the nearby fish market and canning factories, as well as a local shoe factory, where Mini worked until they stopped employing married women. Although there is still no union there, she says, women often take the lead in struggles over benefits and working conditions. Workers at the shoe factory work a 12-hour day but are only paid for eight hours. They receive 30,000 rupiahs (US$3) a day.

At the fish factory, says Mini, workers standing for long shifts risk getting cut with knives. The company pays for the treatment, she says, “but if you can’t work after that, you get laid off.”

Lasuti says she has not had a job since the closure of a ballpoint pen factory where she was working. She makes and sells cookies to make ends meet.

The women organize regular meetings on a wide range of issues, from sanitation problems to incidents of domestic violence. “Kalyanamitra has made a big difference to us,” Mini says.

“We are staging a protest about drinking water,” she adds. Since the official water supply stopped, they get water from a vendor who taps into a fire hydrant. Twenty liters, the minimum for a family’s daily needs, goes for 20,000 rupiah, or US$2.


Wednesday, Sept. 19—“The monsoon flood waters can reach up to here,” says Rizki, pointing to a mark well above the level of the doorway. He and two other members of the Indonesian Patriotic Youth Movement, meet with us at his apartment in Matraman, East Jakarta. They talk about their activities organizing at a local Islamic university.

The annual floods, caused when the torrential rains are too much for the inadequate flood channels that cut through Jakarta, are among many problems working people confront in the capital city of 9 million people. According to the Jakarta Globe, Health Minister Nafsiah Mboi admitted Sept. 11 that 55 percent of Indonesians do not have access to sanitation, while 43 percent can’t get clean water.

Getting around the giant city is a challenge for residents and visitors alike. The Jakarta Post reports that the average speed of traffic is under nine miles per hour. The many motorbikes surely do better than that, as they weave in and out of the traffic.

In contrast to the aging buses, the cars—Toyota and other brands manufactured in Indonesia—are mostly modern, reflecting the affluence of a growing middle-class layer who have benefited from increased capitalist investment in recent years. In the year to July, foreign investment applications totaled US$20 billion.

From the point of view of the capitalists, the country’s inadequate infrastructure is one barrier to further investment in this nation, made up of 13,500 islands and where some 750 dialects are spoken. The July 20 Wall Street Journal wrote that the government “has consistently failed to build the new roads, ports, bridges and other infrastructure it needs to resolve bottlenecks.”

During our visit, the Post runs an interview with C.K. Song, president of the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Indonesia. He said that the country attracts foreign capitalists because of its “cheap labor and vast natural resources,” and what he described as “stab[ility] in terms of political, social and financial issues.” He adds that with rising costs in China, “labor-intensive businesses [have] returned to Indonesia.

But, he says, “Labor unrest and strikes make us worried.”


YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia, Friday, Sept. 21—The global capitalist economic crisis has yet to hit working people here with its full force, as it has in much of the world. The economy grew at 6.5 percent last year, reported the July 17 Journal.

Mahendra, a full-time worker for KASBI here, contrasts the recent situation with the job losses suffered by workers during the capitalist economic crisis that cascaded through many Asian countries in 1997.

“We see new factories in places like Bekasi and [the city of] Surabaya,” he says. “They have big industrial areas.” He says that although Yogyakarta—a city of some 400,000 in Central Java—hasn’t yet seen that kind of development, that may be about to change, as the government fosters the processing of the rich iron sands along Java’s southern coast.

Workers from the Carrefours department store and Ready Mix concrete join our discussion. Rina, a young Carrefours worker, says, “It is our right to join the union and to fight for broader workers rights.”
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