Published: Jul 27, 2007


Sarah Gardner

Some of the most prominent figures in Indonesia's labour movement have been women. Dita Sari, who was imprisoned by the New Order, is now the Chairperson of National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI), one of the most vocal post-reformasi trade unions. Marsinah, a young factory worker from East Java, was raped, tortured and killed for organising a strike in 1993. Both women have become icons of Indonesia's independent labour movement. More recently, Ngadinah, a worker at a footwear factory producing shoes for Adidas-Solomon, was imprisoned for organising a strike of 8,000 workers and union members took part. Ngadinah was charged under the Criminal Code for 'displeasing acts' and held for two weeks in police custody. She was then held under house arrest until finally being acquitted of all charges in September 2001.

It has been five years since the Habibie government ratified the core International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions, which officially brought freedom of association to Indonesia and gave workers the right to form and join unions other than the state-run Federation of All-Indonesian Workers' Unions (FSPSI). Yet, despite the prominence of the women named above, progress towards equality for women in waged employment and in trade unions has been slow. Women are under-represented in the leadership structures of the main mationally-registered trade union organisations. Issues of importance to female workers are often sidelined. Trade unionists, labour activists and academics, discussing ways to overcome the continued weakness of the labour movement, rarely consider the role of women.

Crisis conditions for women workers

Women workers face the same problems that all Indonesian workers face. One is fear of retrenchment. In 2002 the number of workers laid off rose by 34 per cent, and even the government now admits that the unemployed will probably number 40 million by the end of 2003. Wages do not cover basic living costs. Despite complaints from investors and some politicians that workers are becoming greedy, increases in the minimum wage have not kept up with inflation since the 1997 crisis, and many workers do not receive even the minimum wage. There is increased casualisation. Outsourcing and kerja borongan, or contract work, was one of the most controversial issues in the new Manpower Law. Some of the most appalling workplace health and safety conditions in Asia exist in Indonesia. There were 57,000 workplace accidents in the first half of 2002 alone, and some 18,000 fatalities from work-related illnesses or injuries in 2002.

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However, there are many other problems confronting women as workers; problems their male counterparts do not face. Women's wages are on average only 68 per cent of men's. Such discrimination does not occur only in blue-collar sectors; female university graduates earn 25 per cent less than male graduates. Women are more likely than men to be employed on a casual or contract basis. The contract or labour hire systems allow employers to pay workers lower wages than permanent employees, though they perform the same tasks and work the same hours. Contract or daily hire workers enjoy no job security or trade union rights, so the injustice of wage discrimination is compounded by constant fear of retrenchment or reduced hours during periods of 'downsizing'.

Discrimination in access to employment, training and promotion are also common. The Swiss-based multinational Nestle stopped hiring women altogether several years ago in Indonesia, apparently to avoid discharging their obligations regarding paid maternity leave. On the other hand, women at hand-rolled cigarette factories, such as PT Gudang Garam in Kediri, are specifically hired for their 'quick, nimble fingers' and neat work, yet they are not considered for positions above igarette roller. Women are also disadvantaged as a result of definitions contained in Indonesian legislation. The law defines women workers as single; the underlying assumption being that married women do not work and that the husband is the primary income earner. This definition causes women workers and their families financial harm-the tax rates are higher for single workers, and women miss out on access to family health benefits provided by employers. This definition also ensures that women's work continues to be undervalued, both legally and culturally.

Resistance and representation

Under the New Order regime, Indonesian women workers characteristically responded with spontaneous acts of defiance, or by involving themselves in the programs of non-government organisations (NGOs) concerned with women's issues. With Indonesia's new (admittedly limited) freedom of association, women on the factory floor have unprecedented opportunities to articulate their interests by organising trade unions. Since 1998 women workers have fought alongside men in the struggle to gain recognition for new independent unions, and to oppose predatory employers who continue to use violence (usually in the form of preman or hired thugs) to suppress workers' actions. Nonetheless, these struggles for union recognition and for sheer organisational survival have dominated trade union agendas at the local level. Women's interests, and issues of women's representation, have tended to be marginalised.

At the national level, the trade union agenda since reformasi has been dominated by the issue of law reform. More important even than good legislation is the ability of workers and their organisations to ensure that legislation is enforced. Successive reformasi governments have demonstrated their lack of interest in upholding and enforcing labour law. As a result, workers themselves are forced to develop the collective strength to ensure that their rights are respected.

There are only two women leaders in the 60-plus federations registered with the Manpower department at the national level. Dita Sari is one, and the other is Sofiati Mukadi, President of Federation of Timber and Forestry Workers' Unions (FSP KAHUTINDO). Indonesian Prosperous Workers Union (SBSI), following its recent Congress, has one woman (as treasurer) on its five-member Executive Board and women head two of its 12 Federations (previously sectoral departments). The Indonesian Trade Union Congress (KSPI) is composed of industry-based federations and claims to be the 'most representative trade union organisation in Indonesia'. At its founding Congress earlier this year, KSPI elected two women to its 14-member Executive Committee (Sofiati Mukadi, mentioned above, is one). That these positions are held by women is undoubtedly due, in part, to pressure from the influential international supporters of both SBSI and ITUC. The government provides no leadership on these issues-indeed the female president has made clear her opposition to affirmative action. Given all these factors, the best chance women workers have is to organise locally and strengthen their bargaining position at the enterprise level.

There are examples of women organising locally and defending their interests through collective bargaining. In the hotel federation, Federation of Independent Workers' Unions (FSPM), women's committees across Jakarta and Bandung have made considerable gains in negotiating collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with their employers. These include:

In FSPM the gains made at individual workplaces have been shared across the federation through the formation of regional and national women's committees, which have also created possibilities for future coordinated action and campaigning. The women's committees are not only a mechanism for women's interests to be brought to the bargaining table, but also serve as permanent structures to entrench women's representation and decision-making at all levels of the federation.

However, examples of success in collective bargaining (not only for women, but for trade unions generally) remain scarce. The ILO estimates that only 14 per cent of companies have CBAs. Of those that do exist, many CBAs merely duplicate provisions already included in labour law and regulation. The legacy of the New Order, which curtailed organising on the factory floor, has forced workers to learn from scratch about some of the most basic functions and principles of unionism.

As the stories of Marsinah and other women demonstrate, women's resistance is part of the tradition of Indonesia's independent labour movement. However, the basic union principles of equality and justice will remain elusive as long as structures of leadership continue to be unrepresentative, and women's interests continue to be marginalised. The difficult struggle to build a strong, democratic trade union movement in Indonesia cannot be fought without the voices, skills and experience of women workers.

Sarah Gardner (asia-solidarity@iuf.org) is a research officer in the Sydney office of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF).

Inside Indonesia 76: Oct - Dec 2003