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

Colonial legacy

The Adolina plantation is located in Perbaungan sub-district, Deli Serdang regency, in the province of North Sumatra. The provincial capital Medan lies 40 km to the west. Since Dutch colonial times the labourers in this plantation have always been Javanese. The Javanese first came to eastern Sumatra towards the end of the nineteenth century. Most labourers were recruited by means of deceipt, glowing promises and unscrupulous contractors.

The flood of Javanese labourers coincided with the introduction of rubber plantations to the region. If most labourers during the golden age of tobacco (1864-1895) were Chinese, in the rubber and palm oil plantations Javanese labourers mostly replaced the Chinese. The last Javanese to come to the Adolina plantation arrived in the 1960s. Until the present day, Javanese have dominated plantation labour in North Sumatra.


The Adolina plantation consists of twelve sectors. Some are close to Perbaungan, others quite far off, some are hilly, others flat. Today most workers are engaged in palm oil. Although the great colonial plantations have long since gone bankrupt, their remnants are still clearly felt in Adolina. Social relations between administrators and labourers remain unequal, as are wage levels.

Every morning at 6:30 am labourers have to report for work. After checking them in, the supervisor hands out jobs for the day. His word is law. Jobs can change from day to day - today chopping trees, tomorrow perhaps hoeing weeds, dredging ditches or cleaning around the palm trees.

Every morning between 6:30 and 9:30 the Javanese labourers work together in what is known as gotong royong to do the jobs the supervisor has assigned. This is part of their contract. After gotong royong they take a rest for breakfast for half an hour. Breakfast is not supplied - they bring it from home. None are able to eat breakfast at home because of the long hours at work.

After their rest they work again until 2 pm. Actually their prescribed hours run only till 2 pm, but the supervisor normally requires them to stay on until 3 or 4 pm. This overtime is unpaid and considered part of their contract. Even though there may be no work to do, they still have to stay as long as they are told.

Forced labour

The labourers object to the gotong royong, which they regard as forced labour. It makes them angry. But they are powerless to act, so they do it anyway. Protesting to the supervisor is useless, as they know he is only carrying out orders. The plantation will not accept slow work. Like machines, every morning the labourers do their gotong royong.

Workers who resist gotong royong will certainly be punished. For instance - this they fear the most - they may be moved to a remote and hilly sector such as Cukir or Dwikora. Labourers moved to these two sectors are said to be in exile. It is a disaster for their families. They will do anything to avoid such a fate, no matter how burdensome the order.

A labourer's standard wages at Adolina are Rp 88 000 per month (AU$50). They also get 40 kg of rice a month for the whole family. Their wages come twice a month. On 'little pay day' halfway through the month they get half their wages and rice. On 'big pay day' they are given the rest, plus bonuses.

Labourers get a bonus for harvesting palm oil nuts above a certain target. Its size depends on the physical strength of the labourer. In order to increase the bonus, labourers often recruit their wives and children to help cut down, lift and collect the nuts. A thin, short or sickly labourer will have trouble doing this and cannot get a big bonus.

The long hours make it impossible for them to look for extra work outside. And the plantation forbids them to keep goats or cows. The grass around the palm oil plantation is deliberately poisoned so cattle eating it will die.


The low wages are reduced even further by the need to buy their own equipment - machete, hoe and bicycle. The plantation only provides the knife ('egrek') used to cut down the palm nuts, and an axe. They do not care if the labourer does not have these other things, even though they need them. Turning up without adequate equipment means the labourer will be marked absent. Anyone absent for a day loses two days wages, worth Rp 5500 (AU$3).

Labourers must provide their own transport to take the palm nuts out to the road. To carry them by hand would be far too heavy and slow. Moreover it is speed that gets them a bonus. So they use a bicycle. On each side they attach an iron frame to carry an equal number of bunches. In this way they can carry seven or eight bunches. But they often buy their bicycle on credit, at a higher than normal price. And a breakdown is the responsibility of the labourer alone.

Since the mid-1980s plantations have been flooded with hawkers offering goods on credit. These agents move around from one barrack to another, tempting labourers with their radios, tape recorders or TVs.

The plantation cooperatives provide daily necessities. But often people resell the goods they buy there outside. Their wages are deducted to pay for these purchases at the cooperative.


Most of the labourers' children are not able to continue on to higher education. At most they will reach senior high school. Some will only complete primary school. The children of these Javanese labourers who do not finish school know only one environment - that of the plantation. In a non-plantation environment they are confused and have difficulty adapting. They find it hard to compete against the more aggressive behaviour of other ethnic groups when looking for work. They often prefer just to follow in their father's footsteps and work in the Adolina plantation.

Especially in view of the oppressive structure of the plantation, it is difficult to see how they can be lifted out of the trap of poverty. As long as the Adolina plantation retains its colonial heritage, its Javanese labourers will remain mired in poverty and backwardness.

Budi Agustono teaches history at the North Sumatra University (USU) in Medan.

Inside Indonesia 49: Jan-Mar 1997

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