Fight against Greed in Papua

(A slightly shorter version of this article has been published in New Matilda.)

It was 10 o’clock in the evening on September 11. Sudiro, the chief negotiator in West Papua’s ongoing Freeport strikes, was sitting alone on the veranda of his house. He had spent all day with Freeport Indonesia management, bargaining for a wage rise for the members of his union – the All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI) Freeport division.

Suddenly, a bowl that was sitting on a table close to him was hit with a bullet and shattered. Sudiro, who is the head of the Chemical, Energy, and Mine Workers branch of the SPSI, received a clear warning: if he continues to fight for wage parity for the workers at Freeport’s Grasberg mine he will be killed.


Indonesian police attack Freeport workers. October 10.

“I was surprised when I got home that night and told that our leader was shot [at],” Albar Sabang from the SPSI said in a phone interview. “We don’t know who shot him. The gunman used a silencer.”

The shooting took place on the same day that the union received a letter from Freeport management requesting the union and its members “to not propagate a strike action and recruit workers to join the strike”.

Talks between the SPSI and Freeport management over the 2011-2013 contract terms took place from July 21 to August 19 and failed to reach an agreement. The deadline was then extended to August 26 with the same result. In the beginning the union bargained for a wage increase from US$1.5 - $3 to US$35 - $200 per hour, this demand was decreased to $30 - $100 per hour, and is now $12 – $37.50 per hour. Last year, the company gave the workers only a 3 per cent wage increase. As the negotiation deadlocked, the union called a month-long strike which started on September 14 at 10 o’clock that evening.

The workers demanded a parity wage with their comrades who work in other Freeport operating mines in North and South America. Freeport workers in West Papua receive the lowest wages of all Freeport workers – lower than workers in Mongolia or the Congo.

In a letter forwarded to me, SPSI argues that their demands are based on the fact that Freeport Indonesia has profited a lot more than its sister companies in Peru, Chile, Arizona and New Mexico. Their skills are equivalent to their fellow workers in those mining areas, and profit margins are believed to be as high as 60 per cent. Their working conditions are harsher and more dangerous, and the price of gold, copper and silver has significantly increased. Freeport’s Grasberg mining complex is one of the world’s largest single producers of both copper and gold, and contains the largest recoverable reserves of copper and the largest single gold reserve in the world.

In an interview via email, Sabang describes the terrain and working conditions at the mine:

“The mining area is located up to 4200 metres above sea level that requires the workers to take an hour-long journey by buses, and trams. The weather in the area is cold, and misty, especially in the Grasberg open pit area, and rains heavily all day. They have to wear four layers of clothes to work. They have to work five days to seven days a week. They have to work up to 10 hours a day. For those who work in the Maintenance Department, sometimes they have to work from 12 to 14 hours a day.”

From the beginning of the negotiation, the union did not trust the management, and accused them of lying. In a letter to the Indonesian Minister of Mining and Energy dated 16 September, Freeport management accused the union of “intimidating and threatening those who did not participate in the strike”. The letter also said that the workers’ demand to have a “wage increase equal to workers in the developed countries is irrational”. The letter further says: “If it takes place it will affect our national economy, as (it) will create high inflation and (harm) our country’s competitiveness in the international market”. 

The strike has had a huge impact on Freeport Indonesia’s operation. It is reported that the company has lost 3 million pounds (1,361 metric tons) of copper and 5,000 ounces of gold a day because of the strike, the Phoenix-based company said on September 21. read more The Indonesian government estimated a potential loss of 230,000 tons of ore a day read more.

In the same letter, management told the minister “to avoid a great loss, it will recruit temporary workers to replace those who were on strike”. These workers will be employed in the operational field and maintenance.

The strike has also affected the Indonesian government’s revenue. It is reported that it is losing about US$8.2 million dollars a day in taxes, revenue and dividends read more. In his reply to management dated September 21 Thamrin Sihite, the Director General of Coal and Minerals, said the Indonesian government “understands the situation, and [will] allow Freeport Indonesia to use sub-contractors to replace the striking workers”.

Unlike Freeport, which only pursues an economic interest, the Indonesian government also has political interests in the region. The Freeport mining area has been used by the Indonesian government as a bargaining chip in foreign diplomacy against the West Papuans’ desire for independence. For the Indonesian military the mine has also functioned as a source of revenue.

Aljazeera reports that Freeport has illegally paid individual soldiers and policemen to secure the Grasberg complex and its staff. A report by Global Witness revealed that an additional $10 million had been paid directly to individual military and police commanders between 1998 and 2004. This included $247,000 between May 2001 and March 2003 to General Mahidin Simbolon, former chief of staff in the Bali-based Udayana regional command, which included East Timor, who was responsible for the 1999 East Timor massacre, and monthly payments throughout 2003 to the police Mobile Brigade that is known for numerous serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.

For the Indonesian elite the area has been used for political bargaining and a source of revenue. A US diplomatic cable recently released by WikiLeaks shows that a “disparate group of political and economic actors with varied agendas used anti-Freeport sentiment to fuel their pursuit of political power”. Dated 22 March 2006 the cable shows that Adrianto Machribie, PT Freeport Indonesia President Director, told the American Ambassador that a “disparate group of economic and political actors (are) seeking power or economic enrichment or both” by using the anti-Freeport protest that occurred on 16 March. This protest resulted in the death of four security officials read more.

The protest was ignited when people began to blockade the Freeport facility at milepost 74 on February 22. The illegal miners continued to protest for increased economic benefits, including the right to sift the Freeport mine tailings in search of trace gold and access to Freeport community development funds. Machrabie also said “former presidential candidate and past speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Amien Rais seems to see fomenting ultra-nationalist sentiment as a way of unifying his National Mandate (PAN) political party behind him as he prepares to make another run at the presidency in 2009”.

In the same cable Machribie also accused the Coordinating Minister for Peoples Welfare Aburizal Bakrie and Former Vice President, Jusuf Kalla of using the protest to make short term profits by depressing the stock price of Freeport McMoRan. The shares fell 14 per cent during the initial protest in February though they have since recovered to pre-strike levels.  Fuelled by these interests, the Indonesian government allowed the company to hire sub-contractors to replace the striking workers. This decision caused the death of a worker, Petrus Amayiseba, and 10 workers were injured when the police (who had been hired by Freeport) opened fire at them during a scuffle on 10 October. In a letter a union official explains what happened during the incident:

“At 9.30 in the morning about 1000 striking workers and Anis Natkime one of the seven tribal chiefs who own the land (where Freeport is located) negotiated with the police who guarded the gate in Gorong-Gorong terminal. As the negotiation failed, the workers kept pushing through that resulted in scuffles. Overwhelmed with the situation, the police commander then gave warning shots, while other police officers shot at the workers. Seeing their fellow workers fall, the other workers threw rocks at the police that was countered with more shootings”. As a protest, SPSI laid Amayiseba’s coffin at the entrance of the house of local people representatives in Timika until James R Moffett, the President and CEO of Freeport McMoRan, takes responsibility.  The death of Amayiseba triggered solidarity protests across Indonesia and was condemned by Amnesty International read more.

Since the shooting incident the union’s officials have received threats from the police. On October 11, the police commander in Mimika, Edward Siregar, told Sudiro “lets see who is more powerful, your organisation or the police. I will finish you and your followers off”. This threat was repeated in a meeting that night at the house of local representatives attended by local politicians and the head of the Indonesian military.  Sabang said that there has been an effort of the security apparatus to deviate the issue, and make it a political one. It is evidenced with another shooting incident on October 15 when a bus of workers was riddled with machine gun bullets that resulted in the death of three workers.  On the same day Leo Wandagau, 34 years old striking worker who was a victim of the shooting incident on Oct 10, died in the local hospital. 

The shootings were the latest violence perpetrated by the management and Indonesian police. During the strike the management has intimidated the workers via local media and text messages. They also visited the workers’ houses asking them to go back to work. In addition they employed a private security firm, Securicor, a security firm founded in 1935 in London that merged with Group 4 Falck in 2004. Group 4 Falck took over the direct control of Australia’s refugee detention centres from Australasian Correctional Management, owned by its subsidiary Wackenhut, which had run them since 1998 read more. This merger formed G4S (Group Four Securicor), a security firm that is responsible for the abuse of its Indonesian workers read more and responsible for the death of  the Western Australian Aboriginal man known as Mr Ward read more. An SPSI official said that Securicor officers have intimidated the striking workers and have operated beyond its working areas. SPSI also said that on September 23 Securicor and police officers went to the SPSI office in Freeport to arrest one of the members, Jimmy Deda, but were stopped by other workers. On the same day Securicor and the Freeport management brought in temporary workers to replace the striking workers in Mile 38.

In response to the prolonging strike action, Freeport Indonesia has sacked all SPSI officials and taken over SPSI headquarters that was previously provided to SPSI by the management. In a letter dated October 5, the management wrote to Sudiro, “We would like to request a house on Tembagapura St number. 380 that was provided for SPSI last year by October 8. If the house is not emptied, we will pack all documents and stationaries”. 

The workers’ struggle in Freeport is a struggle for justice; a struggle that is shared by many West Papuans. It is a struggle against greed and the powerful elite in Jakarta and Papua that has made West Papuans poor. The natural resources have become a curse for the local populations. For this reason the seven tribal chiefs who represent the population of Freeport areas have written a letter on  September 25 to support the striking workers. They also threaten to “close the mines” unless the workers’ demands are met.