January’s labor unrest that culminated in the paralyzing of economic activities in the industrial estates of Bekasi, West Java, took many by surprise as it marked the awakening of the labor movement after years of slumber. The Jakarta Post’s Hasyim Widhiarto investigates the issue. Here are the stories:
Labor activist Obon Tabroni, 40, not only knows how to rally crowds with his fiery speeches and provocative words but also how to wreck havoc.
During the rally on Jan. 27 in which tens of thousands of workers in Bekasi regency — home to a large number of production facilities owned by multinational companies — vented their anger over wage issues by occupying the Jakarta–Cikarang toll road and forced many factories to shut down.
Workers, aided by local thugs, pressured other workers in several Bekasi industrial estates to join the protests by threatening them with violence.
Racist remarks were also bandied by the protesters, igniting concerns that the row might spiral into a racial issue.
The property of several Korean companies was also damaged during the rally, according to the Korean Embassy.
Obon’s struggle showed how people power could overpower the rule of law — a move that is set to be copied by fellow labor unions in Tangerang, Banten, which recently planned to deploy masses to block access to the airport on Thursday to demand higher wages.
Despite a court ruling that annulled a West Java decree stipulating the wage rise in Bekasi, the central government and a lobby group, the Indonesian Employers Association (Apindo), decided to bow to the workers’ demand for a more than 15 percent raise — more than four times last year’s inflation rate of 3.79 percent.
The decision to give in to the pressure was merely based on concerns that the rally may turn into widespread riots.
Aside from a blatant show of force, the rally also marked the revival of the labor movement, which gained notoriety between 2000 and 2007 when workers often flocked to the capital to rally.
Some leading labor activists believe the revival did not emerge suddenly.
Confederation of Indonesian Prosperity Trade Unions (KSBSI) president Mudhofir, 47, said there was a rise of a stronger and more localized labor movement resulting from the shift in core labor issues in the past few decades.
“Unlike in the past, the agenda of most labor unions nowadays has moved ahead to ensure workers in the regions receive a proper wage. This has made their operation more localized but with a stronger support base,” said Mudhofir, who took over the organization’s chairmanship from labor activist icon Rekson Silaban last year.
Established in 1992 by veteran labor activist Muchtar Pakpahan as an alternative to the government-sanctioned All-Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI), KSBSI currently coordinates 11 workers’ federations with a total of 511,000 members.
Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers Union (FSPMI) president Said Iqbal said the fragmentation among Indonesian labor unions was only a matter of geography but clearly not because they shared extremely different goals.
“If we look closely at all labor unions in Indonesia, we can easily conclude that they actually work to focus on promoting several issues, including the abolition of the outsourcing system and the implementation of fair regional minimum wages and a social security system,” he said.
“So basically it’s not difficult to unite them as long as they agree to highlight which issue they want to promote in a particular period.”
Iqbal, who was appointed chairman of the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation (KSPI) last week, said the recent rally in Bekasi and Tangerang had shown that the labor movement in the areas, where labor-intensive companies are concentrated, was obviously more vibrant than those in smaller cities.
According to Iqbal, the recent awakening of the labor movement from its long slumber is because labor activists are in the process of consolidating and building a new and stronger support base.
There are currently about 100,000 labor unions registered in private companies throughout the country. These unions can opt to affiliate with any of the 90 existing workers federations.
The federations can also attach themselves to one of the country’s four labor confederations: KSBSI, KSPI, the All-Indonesian Workers’ Union Confederation (KSPSI) and the Congress Alliances of Indonesian Labor Unions (KASBI).
Infighting currently plagues the KSPSI, which is now led separately by former manpower and transmigration minister Jacob Nuwa Wea and labor activist Syukur Sarto.
The government and Apindo usually invite the four confederations, along with several major federations, to represent workers during lobbying or discussion on labor-related issues.
Apindo chairman Sofjan Wanandi said the real “battlefield” for employers and workers was currently at the regional level, as governors, regents and mayors now had the authority to set the annual regional minimum wages under recommendation from the Regional Wage Council (DPN), which consists of representatives from the local administration, Apindo, major local labor unions, academics and experts.
“But usually, regional leaders ignore the DPN’s decision, and unilaterally raise the minimum wages way higher, especially when they have been aggressively pressured by labor unions or when they are aiming to re-run in upcoming regional elections,” he said. Businesses have always proposed the ideal formula of the annual wage increase based on inflation plus 5 percent. However, to please workers and net support, most regional governments usually introduce higher numbers.
Businesspeople have also questioned the representation of workers in most of the existing labor unions.
According to Sofjan, only one-third of the 90 workers federations have a significant number of “real workers” as members.
“The others act more like NGOs. They only have a small number of members but are usually eager to protest employers hoping to get financial benefits either from us or from a third party,” he said.
Labor researcher Indrasari Tjandraningsih from the Bandung-based Akatiga social analysis center said that players in the labor movement nowadays were “smarter” compared to those in the past decade, mainly because most of their leaders had university degrees and a vast network with established local and foreign labor organizations.
Indrasari suggested that the government open dialogue with these new breed of labor leaders since she believed that they had the intellectual capability to engage in talks.
“Even if they have to stage a protest, labor unions will not do it in front of their companies, but at the House of Representatives, ministerial offices or the presidential palace, showing that they understand the labor system and know who they should protest to,” she said.
“Shutting down toll roads is only their last resort when negotiations collapse.”