Indonesia: Strikes and protests as discontent rises

The simmering discontent throughout Indonesia regularly overflowed throughout October and November. There were student protests against the Yudhoyono government, attacking corruption, economic injustice and political manipulation of local government, in cities including Jakarta, Jogjakarta, Cirebon, Samarinda (in Borneo), Makassar, Surabaya and Kediri.

There were also demonstrations in Papua, after an incident in which police disbanded a political meeting in Jayapura, killing at least six people. Hundreds of others were arrested, ordered to strip to their shorts and made to squat in the sun for a long period. Days later demonstrations demanded a referendum on the region’s status, including an option for independence.


Workers rally in Batam, Indonesia. November 23.

Demonstrations against the US-owned Freeport mining corporation over its maltreatment of workers, especially strikers, have also taken place in Papuan towns, as well as in Jakarta and Jogjakarta. Striking workers have been killed in Papua. It was also revealed that Freeport had paid US$14 million to the Indonesian police to provide security. There are recent rumours that US military personnel are now also at Freeport. (Is this where the US marines to be based at Darwin will end up?)

Mobilisations have also supported a bill in parliament that would oblige employers and the government to provide some minimum social insurance — but only to securely employed workers. Trade unions covering this section of workers — such as the metalworkers union covering some larger manufacturing plants — have held more protests.

Batam clashes

Perhaps the most explosive situation developed in Batam, a small island just off the coast of Singapore. This has been developed as a manufacturing area servicing companies based in Singapore, as well as in Jakarta. Professional and managerial workers cross from Singapore on a daily basis; it is a 20-minute ferry ride. The prospect of manufacturing employment has attracted people from all over the archipelago. A sex industry has also developed servicing Singaporean men.

According to Indonesian newspapers, on November 23 approximately 30,000 workers went on strike and mobilised a protest. The workers were organised by three trade unions: the Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, Federasi Serikat Pekerja Metal Seluruh Indonesia and the Konfederasi Serikat Buruh Seluruh Indonesia. Since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, and especially during the last five years, more independent unions have been organising.

The workers came from factories in three different manufacturing zones, which included plants assembling electronics as well as materials related to shipping. The unions were protesting after the failure of three rounds of tripartite negotiations on a new minimum wage for Batam. The workers are demanding a minimum wage of 1.76 million rupiah (A$195) per month, while the employer association is insisting on 1.26 million rupiah, which is even less than the municipal government was advocating. Because of the influence of the Singaporean economy, the cost of living is higher on Batam than in other provincial centres.

The police eventually moved against the protest, which was being held outside the local government offices. According to the media reports, thousands of workers were revving the engines on their motorbikes, between listening to speeches. In the fray that followed, two workers were killed and 21 injured. Workers vented their anger on cars and other property. The next day, another demonstration was held to protest the killings and a general police crackdown. To deal with the protest, which mobilised at least 5000 workers, police increased their numbers in the field to 1200. During the protest, at least nine police posts were attacked and damaged, indicating the anger felt by workers.

Newspapers are reporting that since November 25, the situation in Batam has returned to “normal” — that is, with shops opened again, albeit with 1200 police patrolling the streets. In the aftermath, the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce has claimed that the strikes were costing US$3 million per day, including the cost of delays to planes arriving and departing Batam airport.

On November 28, the governor of Riau, the province in which Batam is located, announced a new minimum wage of 1.3 million rupiah. There are no signs yet of what the trade unions will do next. It is unlikely that there will not be more actions. Industrial unrest has been common in Batam over the last year, and business interests claim that some enterprises were already leaving the island. In June, 1500 taxi drivers struck and demonstrated over changes to the metering system.

Meanwhile trade unions from the Jakarta and surrounding areas (known as Jabotabek) have held a press conference to threaten a similar action in their region if wage demands are not met. The larger, consolidated unions in this region have also spearheaded the mobilisations supporting a social insurance bill.

Still no opposition

While there are more and more signs of sharpening unrest in the form of social and economic protests, there is still no sign of either an electoral or extraparliamentary opposition, real or false. Things are still brewing.

Among the elite-dominated political parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), headed by Megawati Sukarnoputri, has some elements striving to portray themselves as an ideological or platform-based opposition. Individual PDIP  members of parliament, such as former TV celebrity Riah Pitaloka, have supported the social insurance bill, including joining worker demonstrations. Others, such as Budiman Sujatmiko, a leader of the People’s Democratic Party in the 1990s, have been positioning themselves as nationalists, focusing critical public statements on foreign corporations, demanding renegotiations and so on. There have also been some voices even within the government, using the current bad press that Freeport is receiving, to suggest a renegotiation with it.

These elements appear to be either too small or too moderate to transform the PDIP into a party that can even create illusions of an active alternative. Despite this, it is emerging as the party with the largest stable, genuine base, even though registering less than 20% in the polls. It has a core of members and sympathisers based on long-term local allegiances. Only Islamic parties have a similar core base, but the political Islam constituency has splintered over the last 30 years so that no one Islamic party has as large a base. The total vote for the numerous Islamic parties also fell at the last election.

Occupy Jakarta

One of the most important developments has been the Occupy Jakarta daily picket, which has been held outside the Jakarta Stock Exchange for more than a month. While the pickets have been small — from 20 to 200 — they have played an important role in facilitating networking among a very broad range of groups.

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, but even more so in the last five years, activist and discussion groups, as well as unions of various kinds, have mushroomed. In this huge country, this has happened often with little interconnection or even knowledge of each other. On the other hand, historical differences (from the 1990s) between the more organised groups have created what many activists see as a highly factional environment. Many Occupy Jakarta participants say that some progress has been made in reducing this.

The regular discussions held at Occupy Jakarta, with guest resource persons from many groups, have put on the agenda the idea of a collective process to forge an alternative progressive platform. It is not clear yet how rapidly this will progress or whether it will do so inside the Occupy Jakarta framework. However, it has injected a note of optimism in activist circles. On November 19, an Occupy general assembly adopted a resolution on Papua after a week of daily discussions. The main points were: an end to all violence against the people of Papua; withdraw the army and police from Papua; freeze Freeport and its assets and hand over its future to a decision of the Freeport workers, local people and traditional leaders; Indonesia must immediately improve infrastructural, health and education facilities; a free dialogue between the Papuan people, Indonesian people and government on the future of Papua, excluding anybody who has received funds from Freeport; democratic rights for the Papuan people as well as efforts to increase productivity there; end stigmatisation of Papuans as criminals or separatists; bring Freeport to justice for human rights violations, environmental damage and violence towards workers; and Freeport to agree to the wage demands of Freeport workers.

Responding to the recent major worker protests over wages, Occupy Jakarta picket discussions are now focusing on wages.