Apr 24, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Unions act globally

Workers unite to win severance pay for retrenched Securicor Indonesia employees.

Jessica Champagne

A recent victory for unionised Indonesian security workers shows what can happen when unions from different countries come together to take on a global corporation.

On 28 July 2006, after a strike for severance pay and back-pay, Securicor Indonesia paid more than Rp 4000 million (A$570,000) to 159 Indonesian security officers. Group 4 Securicor (G4S) is a huge British-owned multinational organisation with 430,000 staff across more than 100 nations and has a global turnover of more than £4 billion (A$10 billion). The payout to security workers was the result of a 15-month strike by the Securicor Indonesia Labour Union (SP Securicor Indonesia), an affiliate of the Association of Indonesian Labour Unions (ASPEK Indonesia). It was also the result of an international partnership based on the direct, shared self-interest of security officers in different countries working for — and having their rights violated by — the same company.

Most international campaigns for labour rights involve unions from prosperous nations sending letters, emails and sometimes money and delegations to support unions in less affluent societies. Even when these actions involve significant resources, they are not seen as central to the missions of the donating union or as equal partnerships. The international campaign for the rights of G4S workers is an example of a new kind of global campaign, in which unions from different countries partner to take on a shared employer. This joint strategising and campaigning around particular companies or industries is a first step towards creating global organisations for workers of multinational corporations.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the largest and fastest growing union in the United States, initiated the international G4S campaign, in which the SP Securicor Indonesia workers have won the first victory. Other allies from around the world — including Labourstart.org, the global federation Union Network International, the GMB (Britain’s General Union), and the Australian Liquor, Hospital and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) — were also crucial to the victory in Indonesia.

The struggle in Indonesia

While G4S violates workers’ rights and national law in many countries around the world, one of the boldest unions to take on G4S has been SP Securicor Indonesia. Securicor Indonesia workers had been increasingly concerned about their status since Securicor and Group 4 Falck announced an international merger, creating one of the world’s biggest security companies. The workers were told that the companies were not merging in Indonesia, but that all security guards had to transfer to Group 4. The workers, some of whom had worked at Securicor Indonesia since its founding, worried that they would lose their permanent status and the credit for their years of service following the transfer. They tried for months to get assurances that their status and rights would remain the same, but got no clear response. On 25 April 2005, hundreds of Securicor Indonesia workers went on strike to demand answers. Rather than provide the assurances the workers needed, Securicor Indonesia fired more than 250 striking workers in Jakarta and Surabaya.

With the help of PBHI (Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Organisation), the union fought its way through the courts, winning first at the P4P (labour tribunal) and then at the PTTUN (High Court on State Administrative Affairs). The company appealed the decision, retaining the high-profile lawyer, Elza Syarief, who is most famous for defending Tomy Suharto against corruption and murder charges. The company also engaged in what the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions called a ‘campaign of harassment by proxies’. Union leaders were taken to court for vague charges of ‘unpleasant acts’. According to the British-based Indonesian human rights NGO TAPOL, ‘union leaders have complained of death threats and coercive phone calls to family members.’

But the security officers were not easily intimidated. They made sure that the company, and the courts, knew that the workers were watching and waiting for their rights to be upheld, often demonstrating several times a week. Their protests helped them get the courts to execute a decision that the workers were entitled to back pay. The two months of back wages that the courts forced the company to pay in October 2005 provided much-needed income for workers struggling to keep their children in school, pay their rent and buy food for their families.

On 8 June 2006, the Indonesian Supreme Court upheld the lower courts’ decisions that the company had fired the workers illegally, and that they must be reinstated. When the company failed to follow this decision from the highest court in the land, both Indonesian and international observers grew increasingly outraged. The Indonesian workers occupied the Securicor Indonesia building, demanding that the company implement the Supreme Court decision and meet its other legal obligations. The international labour solidarity website Labourstart.org mobilised thousands of people from around the world to email Securicor Indonesia and G4S headquarters in London, raising the campaign’s profile around the world. An ASPEK leader travelled to London and, together with an international union delegation, confronted the Chief Executive of G4S at its Annual General Meeting. The unions also approached the international corporations whose buildings the striking security officers guarded, asking these companies to tell their security contractor to abide by Indonesian law. In Indonesia, the parliament’s Commission IX began holding special hearings on the case. Labour and NGO leaders visited the workers’ occupation of the Securicor office.

On 24 July, Securicor Indonesia finally agreed to sit down with the union president to negotiate a resolution to the conflict. The company agreed to pay the workers twice the minimum required severance pay (PMTK) and 11 months of back pay. Criminal charges against the union president were dropped. The victory was celebrated not only in Jakarta, but in Washington, Sydney, London, Kampala and other cities where workers and their allies were struggling for the rights of G4S workers.

The global campaign

This victory was made possible by the combination of skills that SP Securicor Indonesia, SEIU, and other allies brought to the table. SEIU had resources, an international network, and experience in taking on international corporations and winning. SP Securicor Indonesia had a rare level of commitment and militancy, and a strong legal and moral case. PBHI, ASPEK and international allies also contributed crucial pieces of the puzzle.

SEIU’s interest in Group 4 Securicor stemmed from the anti-union and discriminatory practices of the company’s American subsidiary, Wackenhut. Judges and arbitrators have repeatedly found that Wackenhut interferes with its workers’ right to organise. SEIU began working several years ago to co-operate with other unions internationally to maintain and build union strength. It became clear that while G4S was willing to treat workers decently in the UK, it was a different story in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Despite shared enthusiasm and complementary strengths, the partnership was not always easy; the campaign was a learning process for both unions. SEIU is used to very fast-paced campaigns, and had to adjust to working in the context of a very slow state bureaucracy and partnering with a union with very limited resources. SP Securicor was already stretched to its limits, both financially and in terms of its leaders’ time. It often could not promptly carry out the research, communication, or other tasks needed to run an international campaign. The very idea of assigning a leader to research and communication was a new and odd one to SP Securicor Indonesia. The union was excellent at mobilising its troops and marching into battle, but hadn’t given much thought to the propaganda side of this ‘war’.

Each union brought tactics and ideas from its own experiences, which were new and strange to the other. Demonstrating regularly at a courthouse seemed odd to Americans, while the idea of reaching out to building owners and to Securicor clients, seemed strange and risky to SP Securicor Indonesia. SP Securicor Indonesia had the ultimate responsibility, and burden, of deciding which tactics would be most effective in an Indonesian context, and which could backfire. They were the ones whose livelihoods, and in some cases physical safety and liberty, were on the line. Both unions were lucky to have PBHI and ASPEK also providing resources and expertise to help make and implement these decisions.

SP Securicor’s victory has shown what is possible when workers organise and fight in Indonesia, particularly when backed by domestic and international partners. This victory has also shown G4S workers around the world that they can win if they stick together.

But the partnership, and the international campaign, is far from over. In Indonesia, SEIU and the SP Securicor leaders continue to work to support security officers at G4S and other companies. Having seen the strikers’ victory, workers from other companies are also becoming emboldened to demand their rights. Throughout the world, the G4S campaign is continuing to grow. The members of this international partnership are showing G4S that it can’t get away with its current double standard — one standard for workers in England and one for elsewhere. These partners are also engaged in a shared process of learning what it takes to build true partnerships across borders, and figuring out what it will take to create a worker organisation that is as global as the corporations that we’re fighting.

Jessica Champagne (jessica.champagne@seiu.org) lived in Yogyakarta from 2002 to 2005. She now works with the Service Employees International Union. See the G4S campaign website (www.focusong4s.org).

Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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