Indonesian labour activists are mourning the passing of a great man
Michele Ford and Fahmi Panimbang
Not long after 8 pm on the night of 27 November, Indonesian labour activist networks around the world began buzzing with the news of the death of Fauzi Abdullah, a stalwart of the activist community, who devoted more than half his life to Indonesia’s workers.
Popularly known as ‘Oji’, Fauzi was born on 15 November 1949 into Bogor’s rather insular Arab community. The third child of 13, he was the only child not to follow in his parents’ footsteps and enter into business. Instead, he gave up his comfortable middle-class existence for over 30 years of tireless activity, promoting workers’ rights.
Fauzi was not a handsome man, but the humanity that shone in his face drew people to him. Deeply intelligent but always humble, he had a habit of dressing simply in a T-shirt, shabby trousers and flip-flops. Another of his trademarks was his quirky sense of humour, which was never far from the surface even when he was deep in serious discussion about politics and social movements.
Inspired by Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, Fauzi began his life as an activist when he was a student at the University of Indonesia, first on campus and later with the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH Jakarta), where he worked as a volunteer from 1978. Upon graduating in English literature in 1980, Fauzi took a teaching position at his alma mater. He continued to work with LBH Jakarta part-time for three years while teaching, before leaving the university in 1983 to focus fully on his activism. At the time when Fauzi became involved in his first big case in 1980, very few Indonesian activists were engaged with labour. Those who did engage ran the risk of being labelled communists and falling foul of the regime.
Fauzi never lectured workers – he met them on their own terms, always ready to learn from their experiences. This approach set him apart from many other well-meaning friends of the labour movement. Within LBH Jakarta, Fauzi’s approach was unique because it focused on organising rather than on more traditional forms of legal assistance. To his mind, legal aid should not only be a service that a group of lawyers bestows upon the poor – he believed that justice was not a gift, but rather a right. In the early years, Fauzi was often criticised by his lawyer colleagues for his familiar manner with workers, choosing to sit on a mat on the floor, smoking and drinking coffee with them as he heard their stories rather than sitting behind a desk. His methods proved to be effective, and came to be a cornerstone of LBH’s strategy on labour.
After over a decade of direct engagement, Fauzi decided it was time to pass the baton on and contribute in a different way. To this end, he helped establish two labour NGOs. The first was Bakti Pertiwi, an NGO run by ex-workers he had worked with since his early years at LBH Jakarta which went on to help found one of the first regional trade unions in Greater Jakarta. The second was the Sedane Labour Resource Centre (LIPS), an NGO designed to focus on research and documentation of the labour movement, and the organisation through which he continued his labour work until his death in 2009. In addition, he was founding member of Indonesian Society for Social Transformation (INSIST), established in Yogyakarta in 1997 and served on INSIST’s Board of Trustees from 2005 to 2007. Until his death, Fauzi also chaired the Federation Council of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KONTRAS).
Fauzi made many personal sacrifices over a lifetime of activism
Fauzi made many personal sacrifices over his lifetime of activism. Well-known in international labour circles, he was constantly in demand for seminars and other events overseas – events which, as every Indonesian activist knows, generate a solid flow of cash. But Fauzi lived very simply in a house that belonged to his family, spending every spare cent on LIPS. Even after he married labour activist Dwi Purwanti in 2000 and a year later had a son, Raihan Fauzi, much of his income from his work with the consultancy firm Resource Management and Development Consultants (REMDEC) was channeled into his activist concerns.
Fauzi’s health suffered in his fifties when he developed diabetes, followed by a minor stroke in early 2005, which affected the left side of his body. But he continued to support workers wherever they were, travelling to Jakarta, Bekasi, Serang, Semarang and Pekalongan to participate in workers’ activities. It was only in his final weeks and days, when he was too weak to travel, that he stopped engaging in this way.
An important legacy
Fauzi contributed to the labour movement in many different ways. At a practical level, he was one of a small number of outsiders who took on the difficult and dangerous task of organising factory workers during the Suharto period, gradually bringing together small groups of workers who met clandestinely, pretending that they were gathering as a family or as a rotating credit club. Those worker-activists went on to reach out to others in the factories and in worker communities, helping to build the groundswell of grassroots opposition to the regime’s punitive labour policies. Because Fauzi believed in the importance of workers’ own voices, he was also a path-breaker in documenting the development of the movement even as it was embarking on the process of developing.
Fauzi was often criticised by his lawyer colleagues for his familiar manner with workers, choosing to sit on a mat on the floor, smoking and drinking coffee with them as he heard their stories
But Fauzi’s contribution went far beyond the grassroots level. His clear thinking and far-sightedness meant that he was always pushing worker-activists and their middle-class supporters to focus on medium and long term goals. Fauzi believed that two components are vital for the successful consolidation of the labour movement. The first is movement structure, which to his mind included institutionalisation, the documentation of experiences and building networks for long-term cooperation with the aim of developing greater political space for labour’s interests. The second component revolves around the commitment and capacity of labour activists, both technical and intellectual, as actors capable of assuming key roles within the movement.
Unlike so many others, Fauzi understood that these two components were interdependent. On the one hand, without a solid movement structure, labour activists cannot play their movement roles effectively. On the other hand, the structure can only be institutionalised through the commitment, skill and creativity of movement actors. For this reason he argued that the labour movement needed to broaden its struggle beyond the factory and build alliances with other social movements, in order to recognise the fact that workers were also citizens.
In discussions, Fauzi often mentioned his admiration of the people he saw as humble and persistent – including figures like Muhammad Hatta, Yap Thiam Hien and Munir Said Talib – but also many ordinary people in his neighbourhood, whom he considered sincere and kind. Fauzi was just like the people he admired. He was an intellectual who avoided publicity, crowds and fame. Due to receive the Yap Thiam Hien Award for his contribution to the promotion of human rights in the lifetime achievement category in December 2009, it was totally in keeping with his character that before such a prestigious award could be presented to him, he preferred just to ‘go’. ii
Michele Ford (firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs the Department of Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney. Fauzi Abdullah was a source of inspiration and an unfailingly generous interlocutor when she was writing her PhD on the Indonesian labour movement and in the years since.
Fahmi Panimbang (email@example.com) is a researcher at LIPS (www.lips.or.id ), one of the labour NGOs Fauzi Abdullah helped establish.
Two interviews with Fauzi Abdullah were published in Inside Indonesia in 1996 and 2006.