Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Unfinished Business

Labour on the net

New international interest in labour issues

John A MacDougall

As the Indonesian labour movement increasingly churns without booming, Indonesian labour issues are getting sustained scholarly study internationally, after decades of languishing.

Labour research

So many scholars in numerous countries have done solid work. Work by Michele Ford (deputy chair of the IRIP Board) exhibits particular breadth and depth. You might start with her thesis, ‘NGO as Outside Intellectual: A History of Non-Governmental Organisations’ Role in the Indonesian Labour Movement’ (www.library.uow.edu.au/adt-NWU/uploads/approved/adt-NWU20040324.163022/public/02Whole.pdf, 2003), then work through ‘Accountable to Whom: Trade Unions, Labour NGOs and the Question of Accountability in Indonesia’ (www.cityu.edu.hk/searc/WP81_05_Ford.pdf, 2005), ‘Economic Unionism and Labour’s Poor Performance in Indonesia’s 1999 and 2004 Elections’ (http://airaanz.econ.usyd.edu.au/papers/Ford.pdf) and ‘Indonesian Women as Export Commodity: Notes from Tanjung Pinang’ (http://eprints.anu.edu.au/archive/00002113/01/2-5-mford.pdf, 2001).

American Teri Caraway’s recent dissertation, ‘Engendering Industrialization: The Feminization of Factory Work in Indonesia’, may be purchased from Dissertation Express (www.umi.com/products_umi/dissertations/disexpress.shtml).

Chris Manning, at ANU, prepared the International Labour Organisation report, ‘The Economic Crisis and Child Labour in Indonesia’ (www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/ipec/publ/policy/papers/indonesia/indonesia.pdf). Read Graeme Hugo’s global benchmark ‘Indonesia’s Labor Looks Abroad’ (www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=53).

A major compendium by Indonesian authors is ‘Labour Migration in Indonesia: Policies and Practices’, resulting from a 1998 Gadjah Mada University workshop (links to full-text of all chapters at www.unesco.org/most/apmrlabo.htm).


Human Rights Watch has produced a related major series of controversial reports: ‘Maid to Order: Ending Abuses Against Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore’ (http://hrw.org/reports/2005/singapore1205), ‘Help Wanted: Abuses Against Female Migrant Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia’ (http://hrw.org/reports/2004/indonesia0704), ‘Always on Call: Abuse and Exploitation of Child Domestic Workers in Indonesia’ (http://hrw.org/reports/2005/indonesia0605) and ‘Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia’ (http://hrw.org/reports/2004/saudi0704).

For an historical overview of Indonesian workers in Malaysia, read Amarjit Kaur’s ‘Mobility, Labour Mobilisation and Border Controls: Indonesian Labour Migration to Malaysia since 1900’ (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/ASAA/conference/proceedings/Kaur-A-ASAA2004.pdf,, 2004). You can also read Rachel Silvey’s contemporary analyses, ‘Transnational Domestication. State Power and Indonesian Migrant Women in Saudi Arabia’ (www.iisg.nl/~clara/publicat/clara17.doc) and ‘Spaces of Protest: Gendered Migration, Social Networks, and Labor Activism in West Java, Indonesia’ (www.colorado.edu/ibs/POP/silvey/pubs/SpacesofProtest.final.pdf).


Workers’ struggles in Indonesia have a dark, tragic history. A prospective study by Vedi Hadiz appeared as ‘Reformasi Total: Labor after Suharto’ (http://cip.cornell.edu/Dienst/UI/1.0/Summarize/seap.indo/1106954801, access for subscribers to the journal Indonesia only). For a cogent review of the rise in worker opposition toward the end of the New Order, see Akiko Kodama’s ‘The Participation of Women Workers in the Indonesian Labor Opposition Movement in the 1990s’ (www.hawaii.edu/cseas/pubs/explore/v3/akiko.html).

Accounts of labour activists Marsinah (www.asia-pacific-action.org/southeastasia/indonesia/publications/doss1/marsinah.htm) and Dita Sari (www.asia-pacific-action.org/southeastasia/indonesia/publications/ditasari/ditasari.htm) show the brutality of the Suharto era.

The story of SOBSI, the strongest labour union in Indonesian history, figures in many print accounts of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) during the Sukarno years. View over 300 pages from the free Google Book Search (http://books.google.com/books?q=sobsi&btnG=Search+Books&hl=en — Google may ask you sign in if you don’t yet have a free ‘account’).

The CLARA (Changing Labour Relations in Asia) project at the International Institute of Social History in the Netherlands’ working papers (see www.iisg.nl/~clara/clarawp.htm), include a half dozen on Indonesian labour pre-independence.

Current situation

Through a new create-your-own-search engine tool called a searchroll, it is now fairly easy to keep up with everything connected with labour in Indonesia today. Using the Rollyo site, I created a searchroll called Indonesian Press consisting of 25 major Indonesian print media sources.

Go to http://rollyo.com/apakabar/indonesian_press and type in a word or two — any person, place or thing which might bring up stories about labour.

Current news stories appear at the top of the display. Hit the heading Latest Searchroll News Results to see them all. You can also view all stories which have ever appeared on the web from any of the 25 sources by clicking on its name in the left sidebar. For a start, try simple search words like worker, labor, labour, buruh, pekerja, karyawan, pabrik and mogok. These will then lead you to other words which you can further search.

John A MacDougall (johnmacdougall@comcast.net) is the editor of Indonesia Publications (www.indopubs.com) and moderates the indonesian-studies list (http: //groups.yahoo.com/group/indonesian-studies).

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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