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

On the Waterfront

Published: Jul 29, 2007


In the northern-most reaches of Jakarta, on the edge of the Java Sea, lies the port of Tanjung Priok. As one approaches it from the road, one sees little more than high fences with guard posts interspersed at intervals. Behind the fences, one can catch glimpses of seemingly limitless stacks of containers - an immense accumulation of wealth in transit. Tanjung Priok is Indonesia's busiest port with some 1600 container trucks coming in and out every day. To handle the billions of dollars worth of commodities circulating through the port, there is a 15,000-strong army of stevedores, drivers, and clerks.

With so much wealth, one can be sure the Indonesian military is here taking a share. And with so many workers handling this wealth, one can also be sure the military is here to control them - and take a share of the workers' wages too.

Illegal fees

A truck driver at the port bringing in a container complains to me: 'after working at this port for nearly 30 years I've earned nothing. I've had to spend all my earnings paying off the military. Just about every day, to load or unload a container at the port, I have to pay Rp. 30,000 (US$3.30). Meanwhile, just for food and cigarettes, I spend about Rp. 20,000 [US$2.20] a day. So it's a real burden and it doesn't make any sense.'

There is no regulation that says the army soldiers stationed at the gates of the port can collect money from the truck drivers. The soldiers simply follow the slogan of a company whose shoes are exported from the port; they 'just do it'. They do not allow a truck to pass through unless the driver pays what they demand. Usually, the freight companies that employ the drivers do not provide extra money to pay for this unofficial tax.

The four metre-high fences and the ubiquitous soldiers are developments of the Suharto era. The first container docks were opened in 1974. Since then, more docks and cranes have been added to handle the growing amount of container traffic.

The port's pasts

Before 1965, the port used to be known as a open area. Just about anyone could enter. I met one elderly shadow puppet master in Jakarta who recalled how he would regularly perform a bi-weekly Saturday night show for the workers. He was a member of the left-wing cultural organisation Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat). He is still fond of those days: 'If it so happened that I didn't show up for a month, the dock workers would start asking about me. They'd wonder what could have possibly kept me away. Likewise, I would miss my friends there if I was off somewhere else. We were very close.' All that ended with the rise of Suharto in late 1965. 'On the night when the September 30th Movement occurred, I was actually performing at the Tanjung Priok port. I didn't know at the time that it would be the last time I ever performed for my friends there.' For being involved with the so-called 'communist' organisation Lekra, he was imprisoned for 14 years by the Suharto regime.

Although Tanjung Priok is an economic site, it has always had a political significance. During the nationalist movement in the 1920s, it was a refuge for those being hunted by the police of the colonial state. The dock workers could smuggle nationalist leaders into ships as stowaways. After independence, in the 1950s, the dock workers occasionally staged strikes for political reasons. For instance, they refused to load oil onto ships, mainly American ships, that were involved in the war in Korea.

Workers and soldiers

Looking at the port area now, it is hard to imagine those days. All around the port are Export Processing Zones (EPZs) that, with their barbed wire-topped fences and guard houses at the gates, resemble prison labour camps. Supplies are imported through the port, assembled in the EPZ factories by cheap labour, and then exported back out through the port.

What helps keep labour cheap in this area is the heavy military presence. Nearly every branch of the military is active in and around the port: the army, police, army reserves (Kostrad), marines, and navy. The company that owns the docks, PT Pelindo, uses the military for its security guards. The gates for docks are manned by active duty army soldiers who wear the uniforms of PT Pelindo. This is yet another case where the difference between state security personnel and private mercenaries for hire is often difficult to discern in Indonesia. The security personnel not only receive a salary from their units but also from PT Pelindo. Still, they do not consider it enough money and insist on extorting money from the truck drivers and workers.

Every worker at the port, including the drivers of the container trucks, is required to show an identity card when entering. To keep careful track of the workers, this card is re-issued every two weeks. It is not the company that issues the identity cards. It is the army command post situated right inside the port. The army is directly integrated into management-labour relations.

The port authorities have established their own labour law. During the Suharto years, the army, the manpower department, and the customs department issued a regulation forbidding port workers from striking. Port workers were exempted from the already weak protection afforded by national law since the port was considered a strategic asset for the national economy.


The truck drivers also have to face gangsters (preman) who are allied with the military. There is one area of the port known, ironically enough, as Free Land (Tanah Merdeka). It is the area where containers are temporarily stored. The so-called security for this area is provided by gangsters who are not officially employed as security guards. A truck driver who needs to keep a container there for a night has to pay rent money to these gangsters.

According to a truck driver, 'The gangsters are organised by the marines and have their headquarters near the Free Land. If we don't give them money, there is no guarantee that they won't steal the contents of the container. But that area is meant to be a facility of the port for us drivers. It is quite often that the ship comes into the port late in the day or is late a day. So we need a place to store the containers for a night.' This driver added sarcastically, 'Perhaps the place is called Free Land because it is free of any laws'.

On an average night, some 500 containers are stored in Free Land. The unofficial payment to the gangsters these days is Rp. 50,000 per night [US$5.50]. So one can imagine how much money the marines and their hoodlums are making every year for doing nothing.

A new union

Given the military presence and the tight regulation, it is remarkable that the workers have actually formed an independent union called Solidarity of Maritime Workers and Fishermen of Indonesia (SBMNI). Even more remarkable is that this union has organised a strike. About two-thirds of all the port workers went out on a two-day strike in November 2000. Apart from demanding an increase in wages, they demanded that the military stop collecting illegal exactions from the truck drivers at the gates.

The strike was partly successful. Management agreed to raise average wages from Rp. 600,000 to Rp. 700,000 per month [from US$67 to $78]. Despite such a relatively large increase in percentage terms, the wages are still very low, especially considering the long hours and heavy labour. Many dock workers put in twelve-hour days.

The military's illegal exactions at the gates were also stopped - but only for one week. As another truck driver I spoke with explained, 'The illegal fees started being collected again because the military threatened that they could not guarantee the security of the port, especially the security of the trucks coming in and out. For the owners of the port, it was better that the port's security was assured than the illegal fees abolished. Explicitly, the owners of the port sided with those bandits'. The military knows how to use euphemisms. When the military told the port owners that it could not guarantee security without the extra money, it was actually threatening to become a threat to security.

Once the strike was over, the port owners went on the offensive. They issued a new regulation which stated that the workers are allowed to form unions and strike. But they made the pre-conditions of unionisation and striking as burdensome as possible. Thus, the truck drivers, the workers who load and unload the containers, and the janitorial staff can not join the same union. They have to form separate unions. If one of these fragmented unions wants to strike, it has to notify the police one week ahead of time. No union is allowed to picket at the port itself and impede its functioning.

The SBMNI union is still organising and still struggling to make Tanjung Priok port a better place to work. But with the military so deeply involved, it faces a difficult and dangerous battle ahead.

Razif ( is a historian with the Institute of Indonesian Social History in Jakarta and the editorial coordinator of the magazine Media Kerja Budaya (

Inside Indonesia 73: Jan - Mar 2003

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