May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Politics of symbolism

Politics of symbolism

Unionists express their disgust at local government’s failure to look after the interests of workers

Iskarmon Basir

   FSP-LEM protests outside the Disnaker

Unionists in Batam, a small island on Indonesia’s border with Singapore, had high hopes for regional autonomy. An industrial enclave, Batam’s population of over 700,000 is dominated by factory workers from other parts of Indonesia. We make a big contribution to the local economy, so we think it’s only right that we get a say in how things are run.

When the local parliament, local government and local Manpower office ignored our calls for fairer treatment in the workplace and better community services, the members of the Federation of Metal, Electronic and Mechanical Workers Union’s (FSP-LEM) Muka Kuning branch decided to act. On 21 May 2007, we staged a very special kind of demonstration. We visited the local manpower office, the local parliament and the mayor in turn, bearing gifts that symbolised their failure to take care of workers and their families.

A corpse for the Disnaker

  A corpse for a dead Disnaker

Our first stop was the local Disnaker (Manpower office). We began there because we were disappointed with the Disnaker’s appalling lack of action. Under regional autonomy, the Disnaker is the main government body dealing with industrial relations. But instead of protecting workers, the Disnaker allows outsourcing companies to freely trade in human beings.

The Disnaker does so little that it may as well be dead. So we decided to present it with a replica of a corpse in a shroud.

We’d fully support the Disnaker’s efforts if it was trying to develop workers’ skills, but it’s ignoring our rights and allowing us to be enslaved. It has made no effort to stop the rampant misuse of provisions in the labour law for contract work and outsourcing, instead taking the bosses’ side in industrial disputes.

The Disnaker does so little that it may as well be dead. So we decided to present it with a replica of a corpse in a shroud. The corpse symbolised both the Disnaker’s inaction and the future prospects of workers in Batam if outsourcing continues unchecked.

  Dismayed Disnaker official receives his gift

A chameleon for the mayor

  A chameleon for a shifty mayor

Our next stop was the mayor’s office. The mayor’s job is to protect the people who live in his city, the people who voted for him, and made him mayor in the first place. When the mayor was running for office in 2006, he promised to look out for workers if he was elected. He said that workers and their families need support to build the future of the Indonesian nation. He acknowledged that our children need better education, and that our families deserve better services. And, most importantly, he acknowledged that without fairer wages there was little chance that our situation would improve.

But the mayor’s commitment to workers and campaign promises turned out to be nothing more than lip service. Since being elected, he has not only not protected us; he has participated in our exploitation. So on 21 May we presented him with a chameleon as a way of telling him that he should not change his colour to suit whoever he’s talking to, in the process breaking all the promises he made during his campaign.

A chicken for parliament

  Third stop: the DPRD

The local parliament (DPRD) is the highest public institution in the City of Batam. It oversees the local government and the local bureaucracy, and is meant to fight for improvements in ordinary people’s lives. Since workers and their families make up over 80 per cent of the population of the city, they should be a major priority for the DPRD.

The DPRD has the power to force the mayor to live up to his promises, and ensure that the Disnaker does its job. But instead DPRD members have wasted time and money in study tours and half-baked initiatives. When it put together a local regulation dealing with labour issues, the regulation was stalled in the final stage of its discussion, where it has sat ever since.

We were so disgusted with the cowardice of the DPRD members when it came to labour issues that we presented them with a chicken as a symbol of their gutlessness.

  A chicken for a lame-duck parliament

A strong message

The Mayor and representatives of the Disnaker and the parliament were so surprised by our ‘gifts’ that they accepted them without protest. And our demonstration made it into all the local papers, because the journalists and their readers could relate to our presents and the messages they symbolised. We didn’t really expect our ‘special’ demonstration to change anything, but we certainly made our point – a point we plan to keep making in the leadup to the elections in 2009.     ii

Iskarmon Basir ( ) is the secretary of FSP-LEM’s Muka Kuning branch in Batam.

Inside Indonesia 91: Jan-Mar 2008

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