Nov 30, 2023 Last Updated 8:29 PM, Nov 27, 2023

'Only the clothes have changed'

Published: Jul 02, 2000

Reformasi has not made life much easier for trade unionists

Terry Symonds

A strong labour movement is a powerful force for change. Suharto knew this better than most, having come to power on the slaughter of thousands of union activists and communists. Today, under a new and more liberal government, imprisoned labour activists are mostly free and independent unions are on the rise. But they continue to face repression at the factory level and their battle for union rights is by no means won.

The economic and political crisis of the last two years has had a dramatic and contradictory effect upon workers' organisations in Indonesia. Students led the 1998 wave of protest, but it quickly extended to the urban poor. Workers felt encouraged to join the democracy protests and raised demands of their own. Sensing the potential strength of a worker-based opposition, the dying Suharto regime cracked down hard in response.

Immediately before Suharto's re-election in March 1998, some 30 police officers visited the office of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union (SBSI) and forced its closure until after the election. In the week before the election, several lower SBSI officials were arrested for crimes ranging from distributing leaflets to organising plant level unions. Its leader Muchtar Pakpahan was already in jail.

Only two months later Suharto resigned, and Muchtar Pakpahan was released. But other labour leaders remained in prison, including Dita Sari, who was not released until July 1999.

During the turmoil of the Habibie administration, labour organisations continued to play a small but vocal role in the fight for democracy. Just weeks before Wahid was elected president in October 1999, several key unions joined street protests against the proposed new state security laws. Among them were the SBSI and the radical National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI).

Since then, the workers' struggle has provided conflicting signals. Union activists I spoke with earlier this year believed most workers shared some level of optimism about the reformed political process and might be willing to give the government and economy a kind of 'honeymoon'. On the other hand, more recent reports show industrial disputes flaring again, some spilling into the streets.

One thing is certain: trade union activity will grow from a low base. Up to half the workers in footwear and non-garment textile industries were retrenched, while an estimated three quarters of construction workers lost their jobs. Most unemployed workers did not return to their villages but remained in the cities, seeking casual labouring work or driving transports. Recent research indicates that these workers were unable to return to agriculture because they have lost the skills and contacts they need to find work in the village. Many do not want to return anyway. Instead, they remain in large new communities of workers, such as those scattered on the outskirts of Greater Jakarta, sharing the work and earnings of their neighbours.

This huge reserve army of unemployed exerts significant pressure upon workers' confidence to take industrial action, and helps explain the drop in strike rates the last two years. It also confirms that the transformation of Indonesia's workers into a permanent urban class over the last twenty years has not been reversed by the economic crisis.

Vedi Hadiz says in an important 1995 study of the Indonesian working class that urbanisation has closed off any avenue of 'retreat' to the village. Workers will now 'stay and fight it out in the cities'. Urbanisation allows traditions of union organisation to grow and be passed on from one generation to the next.


'Workers are becoming more bold because of reformasi,' said one company director in June last year. There are growing signs that he may be right. Labour activists insist that the new freedoms haven't made things any easier at the factory level, where they face constant intimidation and harassment, but they aren't wasting the opportunity to build.

The Suharto regime effectively smashed Dita Sari's Centre for Indonesian Workers Struggle (PPBI) after she was thrown in jail. But her comrades resurfaced with a new labour organisation, the National Front for Indonesian Workers Struggle (FNPBI). Even before she was released, they elected Dita to head it up.

The FNPBI, barely a year old, held a national council meeting in West Java in February of this year. It brought together delegates from 11 affiliated labour organisations, four more than last year. The FNPBI remains small, but some of its sections are sizeable organisations with an impressive record of organisation. It is distinguished by a socialist outlook and a commitment to political protest not shared by other independent unions.

The commitment of these new labour organisations is matched by growing bitterness among workers. In February 2000, sacked shoe factory workers from Reebok producer PT Kong Tai Indonesia blocked the toll road outside the Manpower Ministry office for several hours with an angry protest over severance pay. When this didn't work, over a thousand workers staged an occupation of parliament which lasted more than a week. These workers seem to have had little prior history of independent unionism. Their spontaneity is a reminder that workers' frustrations do not always express themselves through established organisations.

Demonstrations have been taking place outside parliament almost every week this year. In April, 5000 teachers, whose profession has no reputation for militancy, swamped parliament house during a strike for a 300% wage rise. They had rejected the government's offer of 100%.

Shoe factory workers at PT Isanti in Semarang won 23 of their 25 demands, including a holiday on May 1 to join the international commemoration of workers struggles. Their union believes this will help to revive a May Day tradition that was forced underground for its association with communism.


The relationship between labour and the new government is shaky and not likely to improve. When I asked one group of striking workers what they thought of the election results, they told me that 'only the clothes have changed'.

Muchtar Pakpahan's SBSI is Indonesia's largest and most well established independent union. It is generally close to Wahid, but even that relationship is showing signs of strain. In a test case for the new government, the SBSI is fighting for the release of two members convicted under subversion laws for leading a strike last year at a tyre factory in Tangerang. Muchtar also criticised the recent small rise in the regional minimum wage, saying it was 'just enough to eat and smoke a little, and breathe the air.'

Almost all independent unions, including the SBSI and FNPBI, declared their opposition to the appointment of Bomer Pasaribu, a New Order figure, as Labour Minister. Muchtar Pakpahan calls on international unions to apply pressure for his removal (see box).

Wahid did delay the recent IMF-inspired fuel price rise, but 2,000 protesters gathered at parliament to remind him of what lies ahead. When the price rises inevitably come, bigger protests are expected.

Indonesia's new labour movement is small but growing and the mood of workers is hardening. Trade unions are unlikely to occupy centre stage in the political process unless the economy turns around and the bargaining position of their members improves, but they will be an increasingly important player in the looming confrontations over economic reform. Wahid will ignore them at his peril.

Terry Symonds ( is the convenor of Australia-Indonesia Union Support. He lives in Brisbane, Australia. The group has wide union links and brought Muchtar Pakpahan to Australia for a visit.

Inside Indonesia 63: Jul - Sep 2000

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