Jun 04, 2023 Last Updated 2:32 AM, May 31, 2023

An unlikely unionist

An unlikely unionist
Published: Oct 07, 2007

Michele Ford

Pak Iwan wearing the colours of SBSI 
 Michele Ford

Pak Iwan is an unlikely unionist. He doesn’t work in a factory, or a shipyard, or a shop, or an office. He’s never been a campus activist, or joined an NGO. Pak Iwan is a traditional fisherman who lives in Tanjung Balai Karimun, a small town on a small Indonesian island near the border with Singapore and Malaysia. He was born in Cirebon but his parents, Malays originally from Medan, moved to mainland Riau when he was a very small boy. His family was very poor, and he left school at the age of eight to help his father on the fishing nets. Now, at 41, he looks considerably older than his years.

Pak Iwan didn’t expect to stay long when he came to Karimun at the age of 24. He planned to cross the narrow straits that divide Indonesia from Malaysia illegally in search of work. Having saved up enough money to pay the people-smugglers, he made several attempts to cross the border. Each time he paid for another chance to enter Malaysia, the police arrived and stopped the boat.

His money all gone, Pak Iwan settled in Tanjung Balai. He married a local woman and returned to the work he knew best. Pak Iwan can’t afford to buy a boat, so he has to share his catch with the boat owner. To make ends meet, he works as a day-labourer on small-scale building sites when there are no fish. In recent years, this has increasingly been the case, as the waters have been muddied by sand mining and larger boats have encroached on the shallow waters directly off the shore.

TV and Muchtar

Pak Iwan first found out about trade unionism by watching TV. He was impressed by the bravery of men and women who flooded the streets in an effort to fight for their rights. He learned more from a local lawyer who used to visit the docks where Pak Iwan unloaded his catch. The lawyer, who later stood as a candidate for Muchtar Pakpahan’s Social Democratic Labour Party, explained to him what unions were and what they did.

Then before the 2004 election Muchtar himself came to campaign. The lawyer invited Pak Iwan to meet him, and Muchtar urged him to start up a local branch of the Indonesian Prosperous Trade Union (SBSI). Pak Iwan wasn’t convinced that his workmates would join if he was the leader, so he asked three local aristocrats to fill the top three posts, while Pak Iwan himself became treasurer. The SBSI branch registered with the local Manpower office in November 2006.

Not long after registering, Pak Iwan had a chance to attend the union’s national congress. It was the first time he had returned to Java since leaving there as a tiny baby. He came back inspired by his fellow unionists’ knowledge and experience. Since then, he has attended half a dozen seminars and training programs in Batam, including one run by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). 

Certificate from IWO
Pak Iwan’s certificate from the ILO  
 Surya Tjandra

A new world

The union is still struggling, but Pak Iwan hopes that in the future it will make a real difference to the lives of those around him. But for the moment, there’s a lot of hard work to be done, with little chance of immediate reward. Friends ask him why he persists, when he has gained nothing concrete from his activism. They laugh at him, saying, ‘You go to Jakarta, to Batam, but when you get back, you’re just like the rest of us.’

Pak Iwan’s answer is simple. He has had all kinds of new experiences, and learned all kinds of new things. He shakes his head unbelievingly as he recalls his first experience of going in a lift, of staying in a big hotel and attending a seminar, and marvels at the access he now has to local officials and community leaders. Unionism might not yet have improved his economic position, but it’s given him something that he considers to be even more important. Through his activism, Pak Iwan now has access to a whole new world – a world he never thought would be available to the son of a poor fisherman.

Michele Ford (michele.ford@usyd.edu.au) teaches Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

A calendar for a new house

Pak Iwan considers himself a lucky man. His wife Emi supports him in his activism and his three children will get a better education than he had. But for Pak Iwan disaster and luck sometimes go together. For a number of years Pak Iwan’s family lived in a small shack he had built on tidal land. Then a few months ago, a storm blew off the roofs of 11 houses in his district, including his.

After disaster struck, the local bupati (district head) came to inspect the damage. On entering Pak Iwan’s shack, the bupati noticed a calendar with his picture on it. Thinking that Pak Iwan was one of his supporters, he immediately offered him money to buy the materials he needed to rebuild. Recounting this story, Pak Iwan chuckled as he explained that they’d kept the calendar to use as a fan.

Pak Iwan takes great pride in the reconstructed 5 metre by 5 metre house, which boasts a concrete floor, a corrugated iron roof and proper wooden walls. The stars are still visible through chinks in the unlined roof at night, and water still laps around the foundations at high tide. But for Pak Iwan the house is a symbol that change for the better is possible. He adopts the same principle when it comes to his union.   ii

Iwan's new house
Pak Iwan’s new house


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