Jun 24, 2024 Last Updated 5:50 AM, Jun 24, 2024

Beyond the factory

Michele Ford

Fauzi Abdullah, now 56, is one of the most respected labour NGO activists in Indonesia. Things have changed a lot since Fauzi first became involved in labour activism in the early 1980s. But, he thinks they need to change a lot more. Michele Ford talked to Fauzi Abdullah in Jakarta in December 2005.

Why did you become involved in the labour movement?

It all began when I was a student activist in the 1970s. In our discussions we talked about the gap that was growing between the rich and the poor. It wasn’t as bad as it is now, but it was evident, and was beginning to become a problem. We were very aware at the time that if we wanted to change things, we needed to find ourselves some allies.

There were two main approaches to coalition building. Some said it was best to use a counter-elite strategy: by becoming part of the elite, students could effect change from within. Others had deep doubts about this strategy. This second group — of which I was part — thought it was better to form alliances with farmers, workers and so on.

At that time I was in Jakarta finishing my studies. I started working part-time at the Legal Aid Institute (LBH). The first big case I was involved in was the Tekstra case in 1980. It was obvious to me from the way the workers were fighting that they had enormous potential as a force for social change. That’s when I started learning about labour.

I’m not a lawyer, so I wasn’t allowed to handle the case. But I formed personal friendships with the workers, and began to engage with them. I’d go to their houses and talk to them about the challenges they faced. I became more and more involved, and developed a lifelong commitment to labour issues. I worked part-time at LBH while teaching English Literature at the University of Indonesia for three years before taking on activist work full-time.

For many years, I engaged directly with workers, but then I pulled back, and worked with labour activists. Then I pulled back again and began a labour information service in the early 1990s. I did this because I thought it was important to give younger activists a chance to establish their own identity.

What were the defining events for labour between 1980 and 1998?

There were two main developments in the 1980s. First, although the military had been involved in labour issues for a long time, military intervention became really obvious in the early 1980s under the hardline military labour minister Sudomo. Second, the government forced all unions into one big union that was easier to control. In the beginning, these policies were very effective. But after a while, people stopped being scared, and labour issues began to re-emerge.

Things opened up a bit in the early 1990s, for example, with the policy of allowing independent company-level unions to form. For me that represented some sort of acknowledgment from the government that unrelenting repression was too difficult to maintain. Then of course 1998 was a whole different story, when workers participated in the demonstrations against Suharto. In the following two years we started to see real freedom to organise. Enormous numbers of new unions were established. Some of the old ones have closed down, but the numbers continue to grow.

How significant was labour’s role in the protests leading up to the fall of Suharto?

In the 1990s, when the students were busy with the discussion groups, it was the workers who were on the streets. I don’t think the workers’ protests changed much, but it’s significant that they were out there. In 1998, I think their role was much smaller than that of the students, but they did play some part. Workers’ involvement wasn’t very significant to the community as a whole, but it was significant to the workers themselves. Without them, Suharto would have fallen anyhow. But internally, it prompted workers to realise that they must engage with broader social issues, not just labour issues. Now it’s easier to convince them that their struggle should extend beyond the factory. They must realise they’ve got no chance of winning without doing so, because they are weakened by high unemployment.

Is it time for workers to get involved in formal politics?

There’s lots of debate about this. Personally I don’t think so. I think it’s better to develop labour’s non-electoral strength first. Once workers’ organisations are strong enough, then it’s fine for them to get involved in electoral politics. If they got involved now, it’d be a disaster.

So what are your hopes for the future of the labour movement?

I don’t think we should focus too much on the immediate future. We have to put our hopes in the long term. I think we need to find a better model of organising; a model that fits the current situation. The informal sector is huge, and there’s a process of informalisation going on in the formal sector too.

We also need to focus on a wider range of issues, which recognise ­workers’ status as citizens. Wages aren’t enough. We need social security, the right to a good education and so on. If the labour movement can widen its concerns beyond the factory, it’ll have a much better chance of surviving. ­Individual labour activists would also be less vulnerable to threats of dismissal. The labour movement also needs to cooperate with other social movements. For a long time, the labour movement has been alienated. No one outside activist circles wants to know about labour. If the labour movement built up its bargaining power in this wider arena, it could return to the factories with a bit more power. Hopefully we can achieve this in the next ten years or so.

The main difficulty is that the trade union leadership is too divorced from the grassroots, because workers in the factories are reluctant to sacrifice job security to become more heavily involved in union activities. Also, it’s a problem of time. Companies don’t have to give workers time off for union activities. As a result, beyond the company level, almost no unionists are still working in the factories.

The trouble is then that higher level union officials are almost always full-time unionists. They are not just engaged in an activist capacity, but in a job. They have to worry about how they’ll earn a living if they are no longer union officials. As a result, they tend to try to hang on to their positions. This also affects relations between unions. There’s a lot of competition between unions at least partly because union officials don’t feel secure in their positions. Union leaders try to protect their own interests, and as a result, it’s really hard to bring them together.

There’s also a big problem with small unions where student activists are involved. Often the students associated with the union have more influence than the union members themselves. And the students love to play politics.

And finally, there’s the question of funding. If unions aren’t careful, funding can be really dangerous. It’s easier to put together a proposal to a donor organisation than to collect dues.

What do you think are the burning issues?

I want to go back to the issue of social security. Wages are one thing — and in a number of areas, like Banten, campaigns for better wages are going quite well. But social security is another matter. The former director of the government’s social security scheme was arrested recently. He’d corrupted enormous amounts of money. And who knows about the new director? There’s a hell of a lot of money tied up in that scheme. These issues really need to be taken up by the union movement.

The other burning issue is relations between union leaders at the local and central levels. Recently, I’ve been trying to push for learning circles involving the leaders of company level unions, so that local leaders can reflect on their practice. This is so important. Amongst labour activists, ‘capacity building’ has always been equated with training. So much training has been done with so much donor money over the years, but it’s difficult to see what it’s achieved. If union leaders could reflect on their practice, and identify for themselves what they need, then we could target training to really meet those needs.

But training’s not everything. Without a proper understanding of unions’ needs, what’s the point? How many trillions of rupiah have been spent over the years on training? We need a different approach.

Michele Ford(michele.ford@arts.usyd.edu.au) teaches Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney.
Fauzi Abdullah can be contacted at lips@lips.or.id.

Inside Indonesia 86: Apr-Jun 2006

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