Indonesian workers struggle for basic rights

A labour dispute is unfolding in this Central Java city that highlights many of the intransigent problems Indonesian workers face under the neoliberal government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). What should have been an easily resolved minor labour dispute has developed into an ongoing campaign that has involved public meetings, blockades, occupations and street demonstrations and has resulted in the formation of a new union and city-wide labour solidarity network.

The dispute began on August 30, when 42 security guards employed at one of the major  shopping malls in Yogyakarta, Sapphir Mall, were sacked by PT Primanusa Purnama, an outsourcing company contracted by Sapphir Mall to provide security services. The sacking was not legal because PT gave only oral notification of the end of their employment. PT also failed to pay one month and 16 days of salary as well as the usual Ramadan holiday pay.

New union formed

The workers took independent action, shutting down Sapphir Mall for two days in late August. On September 2 a meeting was held between the United Movement of Labour Indonesia (PPBI) and the security workers to form a new union, Security Workers Union (SPK). While the dispute was also being heard by Yogyakarta’s industrial relations mediator, the SPK-PPBI launched an independent campaign for PT Primanusa and Sapphir Mall management to meet their obligations to the workers. As a result of the campaign, which involved the workers continuing to turn up for work to show that the sacking was illegal, public meetings and protest actions occurred in Yogyakarta and at Sapphir Mall.

The campaign has also been the catalyst for the creation of a new multi-sector united front, Committee of Labour Struggle Yogyakarta, composed of 12 organisations including students’, women’s and other labour organisations and with approximately 1000 members. On October 7 and 8, the SPK-PPBI blockaded the entrance to Sapphir Mall for two days, an action that attracted a lot of media attention, including international media. As a result of the campaign, the Sapphir management has agreed to pay the workers the full amount owing. Other workers at Sapphir Mall have been inspired by the struggle and as a result  other workers have expressed interest in joining the SPK.

While the initial demand of the campaign has been met, the workers are still in limbo over their future employment. They will be continuing to campaign to secure their employment and livelihoods for the future.

Daniel Ariessandi, secretary of PPBI Yogyakarta, told Direct Action: “We will continue to oversee this process and solidarity of all elements of society, especially the workers, because labour issues are important for the country’s economy. The welfare of the workers is an important responsibility of central government to the regions, and also determines the quality of life of the whole community. To all the poor people of Indonesia, especially the workers, we always call for solidarity between us, because the problems we face today may also be experienced by our brothers. Without unity in the independent popular organisations, we will become an easy target for the employers, who are taking as much profit as possible. We also must not simply hand over our fate to the state apparatus, because of the government‘s failure to take care of its people is starkly evident everywhere.

“We must always remember that our fate is in our own hands; we must face our problems alone. Welfare must be fought for. If we fight for consciousness and are willing to unite with other oppressed people, our struggle will become stronger, because history teaches that nothing can beat the unity of the people.”

The case at Sapphir Mall highlights the extremely vulnerable condition of the majority of workers. According to an August 13 Jakarta Post article, out of a workforce of more than 97 million, 60 million work in the “informal” sector, which is a euphemism for being officially unemployed but scraping a living from a variety of odd jobs. The unemployed do not receive any subsidies or payment from the government, so these jobs are often the only thing preventing complete destitution. SBY’s support for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) will exacerbate these problems. The Indonesian economy is underdeveloped, lacking the technology, technical expertise, capital and productive capacity to compete with products from more industrially developed countries. Thus the outcome of the ACFTA will be the further dominance of Chinese-manufactured goods in the Indonesian market. In the textile industry alone, which currently supplies only 22% of the Indonesian textile market, 1.2 million workers have already been threatened with lay-offs.

Rising prices

Furthermore, the government is also making basic survival more difficult. Most recently it increased the electricity tariff by 10%, which will have a flow-on effect on the price of nearly all commodities. The government has not announced any plans for increasing the minimum wage, which is already inadequate to meet basic needs.

Beyond the immediate demands of the workers at Sapphir Mall, the SPK-PPBI is also raising broader national political demands about the conditions of life for the majority of Indonesians: demanding salary increases of 100% or decent wages for all workers, free education and health insurance, old age benefit for all workers and cancellation of the increase in the electricity tariff . Ariessandi said: “Every campaign must raise the national and international political issues, as this is the only way that workers in struggle will be radicalised to make the connection between their own struggles and the national political situation and the need to get rid of the government and elite political parties that exist now, which have failed to help the people prosper.

“We want to convince the workers, peasants, urban poor, students and the union movement that they can wage resistance and form a government for the poor people.”

Please send messages of support to: Society of Indonesian Labour Movement: Secretariat, JL. Laksda Adi Sucipto, Kledokan I, Blok D, No. 19A, Catur Tunggal, Depok, Sleman, Yogyakarta. Phone: 0274-489719 / 08561169852 (Daniel, secretary PPBI, Yogyakarta). Email: