Feb 27, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Workers – go politics!

Workers – go politics!
Published: Feb 27, 2024

Kirsty Hoban

Obon Tabroni, head of the Bekasi branch of FSPMI and the force behind the ‘buruh go politik’ campaign in Bekasi. The truck is used by the union in demonstrations and strikes and is usually covered in FSPMI banners but was used by all the worker candidates with their different party colours during the campaign - Kirsty Hoban

It is April 8, the day before the election. The streets have been cleared of all the candidate posters that have clung to every tree trunk over the last few months. The banners that have hung down from every bridge are gone. So too are the red, yellow, green, and blue flags that have been flying from the top of almost every building and jostling for space along every major road. It’s the official ‘cooling down’ period and all overt campaigning is required to cease.

That’s in the real world. In the online world, or ‘dunia maya’ as Indonesians call it, political debate rages on. Here in Bekasi, to the east of Jakarta, active labour union members are flooding facebook with slogans, detailed arguments, instructions on how to vote, photos of candidates at rallies and carefully designed campaign posters bearing both labour union and party logos.

A new experiment

This flurry of political activity is something new for the factory workers of Bekasi. They finally have someone to vote for, because leaders of Federasi Serikat Pekerja Metal Indonesia (FSPMI, Federation of Metal Workers’ Union) are standing as candidates at the district, provincial and national level. FSPMI is a union of workers in the manufacturing sector including the electronics and automotive industries as well as many other types of manufacturing such as plastics, paper and pharmaceuticals. In Bekasi, nine union candidates are standing, with five different parties but under the common slogan ‘buruh go politik’ or ‘workers go politics’. Workers who had previously abstained from any engagement with politics are now fully immersed in the process as volunteers and supporters of their union candidates.

The union is using facebook as a campaign tool because it is free, because it is an effective way to gather and gauge support and because virtually every factory worker has a smart phone in their pocket. Moreover, because the union candidates are standing with so many parties, there is a lot of explaining to do. Each facebook post will typically depict candidates from the district, provincial and national level from three different parties.

This is all very new. It is potentially very confusing for voters, and a gamble for the union. Will all the union candidates get elected - or none of them? Will some do better than others? Will union members be able to convince their fellow workers, family and friends to vote for a union representative who may be running with a party that is not popular in their electorate? Will the parties play fair and honour their agreements with the union candidates? Will the union’s strategy of placing candidates in a number of parties pay off?

This is not the first time in the post-reformasi period that representatives of labour and the union movement have engaged in politics. Labour parties have been formed and contested elections before and union leaders have stood as candidates for existing political parties in previous elections. These efforts were mostly unsuccessful and have left no lasting impact. There are a number of factors that make this political movement in Bekasi new and exciting. The three most important concern the place itself, the parties and the nature of the participation.

The place – Bekasi

Depending on traffic, it takes between one and three hours to get to Bekasi from the centre of Jakarta, heading east on the toll road. It used to be a district with a sleepy town centre and a mostly agricultural and light industrial base. Since factory expansion began in the 1990s, it has grown into the largest industrial zone in Southeast Asia. Foreign investors from Japan, Korea, Singapore, Europe, the US and Australia have built massive factories in what was once farmland, producing components and finished products for major international brands. One million men and women have come from small villages throughout Java and beyond, to work in these factories which make everything from dolls and paper cups to motorcycles and televisions for export and for the Indonesian middle class.

The factory workers of Bekasi currently earn about Rp2,400,000 (approximatelyUS$240) per month. This is a very low wage by world standards and it is not enough for a small family to live in ‘frugal comfort’ in Bekasi. Workers and their families live in tiny, poorly ventilated rooms in close proximity with their neighbours and with transport, waste and sanitation infrastructure that is shamefully far below the international standards of the factories in which they work. Workers must work overtime and second jobs to pay for their children’s schooling. They must borrow money to pay for medical care when their spouses are sick. Single workers delay their weddings and workers with families pawn their motorcycles for extra cash to meet expenses. They have little time for recreation and limited opportunities to increase their skills through further education.

6. Hoban 2The worker candidates of Bekasi, and their parties

However, the factory workers of Bekasi are better off than most of the working class in Indonesia. In contrast to most workers in Indonesia who are engaged in the informal economy (which makes up approximately 70 per cent of the Indonesian economy), these factory workers receive regular pay from their employers and work in highly structured environments with thousands of fellow workers. This makes it easier for them to form unions and thereby improve their wages and conditions. In recent times, the workers of Bekasi have been very successful at doing these things.

FSPMI is not the largest union in Indonesia today, but it is arguably the most effective. It has approximately 250,000 members spread throughout Indonesia but concentrated in the industrial zones of Batam and Java. Roughly 100,000 of them work in Bekasi factories. FSPMI, together with other active unions, has effectively negotiated wage increases over the last few years so that minimum wages have doubled in Bekasi from approximately Rp1,200,000 (US$120) in 2010 to their current level of Rp2,400,000. They have also been effective in curbing the widespread illegal practice of ‘outsourcing’ or employing workers on illegal third-party contracts. Since 2012 about 55,000 formerly outsourced workers have been re-employed on permanent contracts due to union action.

Union strength in Bekasi has been steadily growing since the last time there was a general election in 2009. This new found confidence prompted union leaders to think that they could contest the 2014 election. Obon Tabroni, the head of the Bekasi branch of FSPMI and the brains behind this move into politics, challenged the other leaders by saying ‘Why should we vote for any of these useless politicians when we can run as candidates ourselves? Why don’t we vote for us?’

The parties – multiple parties, one union ticket

The trouble was that they didn’t have a party. Up to this point, the union had made a deliberate effort to be politically neutral. This is a common stance for Indonesian unions, still very much in trauma from the Suharto era during which union activities were co-opted and de-politicised by the state. The many hundreds of free unions that have sprung up since Reformasi have tended to guard their independence from politics in order to retain a critical voice. As the unions have refused to have close relations with the parties, so the parties have largely ignored the unions. With a few notable exceptions, unions and the workers they represent have been let down by politicians.

The financial, structural and legal barriers to creating a new political party in Indonesia are high, so the union had little choice but to place union leaders as candidates in existing parties. It decided to go with a number of parties rather than just one. One primary reason was that a few potential candidates already had close personal connections with certain parties. Another reason was that the parties had varying levels of support in different parts of Bekasi. It made sense to try to place union candidate in places where they had the best chance of winning, and that meant picking different parties in different constituencies. A further reason was that by placing their candidates with more than one party, the union could claim to be maintaining its political neutrality. If luck would have it that all of the candidates got elected they could work together within the Bekasi parliament and with their provincial and national parliamentary colleagues to promote a workers’ agenda even against the interests of their parties.

If you want to join many special groups in Indonesia, such as the police force or the public service, you can pay for the privilege or you can forget about joining. This is also the case in politics. Political parties often demand payment from prospective candidates. The union refused to pay. Instead, they offered their leaders as candidates to the parties and they brought something to the table that other fresh candidates had no chance of offering – the union’s members and their families, together constituting many thousands of votes.

After a few weeks of horse trading over electorates and positions on the party ticket, the following line up emerged. For the local parliament in the district (kabupaten) of Bekasi two union candidates were placed with PAN (National Mandate Party, the party associated with the modernist Islamic movement, Muhammadiyah), two with PKPI (Indonesian Justice and Unity Party, headed by former general and Jakarta governor Sutiyoso) and one with PDIP (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, former President Megawati Soekarnoputri’s party). In the city of Bekasi one ran with the Islamist PPP (Unity Development Party) and one with PKPI. For the parliament of the province of West Java one candidate ran with PDIP. Another union leader ran with the Islamist party, PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) in the Bekasi-Karawang-Purwakarta electorate for the national parliament, the DPR (People’s Representative Council).

The participation – real leaders and real volunteers

As with most Indonesians, the workers of Bekasi are pretty disgusted with the politics of privilege and corruption that they experience every day. As union members they had been told that politics was about the self-interest of the elite and that the policies that emerge from parliament are the product of a dirty game from which they are excluded. They had been mobilised on to the streets by their union leaders on many occasions to demonstrate in front of government agencies, ministries, the parliament and the presidential palace. Now suddenly they were being told ‘we must get behind our candidates and get them elected into parliament’.

Workers who had never voted before were now being asked to become part of a campaign team (tim sukses) and to convince their neighbours and work colleagues to vote. They were asked to donate their time and whatever resources they had, such as laptops and phones, to promote the candidates. They were asked to organise meetings in their factories and in the open spaces in the industrial zones to ‘socialise’ the union’s move into politics. They were asked to put up posters and banners in every village and neighbourhood. And, of course, they were asked to use the tools of social media, particularly facebook, to spread the message. They did all these things with great enthusiasm. One union wit has called it ‘demokrasi instruksi’ in reference to the instruction from the union leadership to support the candidates. Union leadership ‘instructions’ to members are usually restricted to directives to mobilise for strikes and demonstrations and carry sanctions for non-participation.

There were of course some objections. Some people involved in the union were more or less openly cynical about this change of direction. Some were critical of the process of selecting the candidates and of the individuals who were selected, as well as the parties that they were aligned with. Others were completely against the union having any engagement with parliamentary politics. These objections and the counter arguments were debated continually in ‘real life’ at official union meetings and in all the places where members usually hang out and gossip about other things. The debate also flowed into the more public and permanent space of the internet. Such debates have themselves been a kind of political education. Unionists have been forced to engage with the practice of politics and get off the comfortable ‘golput’ (non-participation) couch.

The outcome

In the end, two of the nine union candidates were successful. They are Nurdin Muhidin, who ran with PAN, and Nyumarno, who went with PDIP. They both now have seats in the District of Bekasi Parliament (DPRD Kabupaten Bekasi) representing electorates in Cikarang with high concentrations of manufacturing workers.

Nurdin Muhidin currently works at the Hitachi electronics factory in Cikarang. He is the union leader at the factory and is known as the union’s ‘national orator’ because he has a special place on top of the truck which leads mass demonstrations in Bekasi and Jakarta. It is his voice which booms out of the speakers at times encouraging and at times calming the crowds outside parliaments and government offices. He has also been a member of the wage council, the body which determines minimum wages for workers in the industrial zones of Bekasi district. He has been a tireless advocate for workers’ interests during negotiations with government and business in this forum. These negotiations are intense and have been known to run for three days and nights non-stop. Nurdin is well prepared for his new role as the workers’ representative in the Bekasi parliament.

Nyumarno has some experience with politics as he worked in the national parliament as a member of staff to Rieke Diah Pitaloka, a well-known legislator from PDIP. Rieke is a member of the commission on industrial relations and Nyumarno’s position was focused on labour issues, working with unions on issues such as minimum wages and the social security system. He was also her campaign coordinator for the Bekasi area during her run for Governor of West Java in February 2013. While that campaign was unsuccessful, the experience and networks he gained proved valuable this time around.

Before working for Rieke, Nyumarno was a worker at a motorcycle factory in Cikarang. A dispute between the Taiwanese motorcycle manufacturer Kymco and their local partner Lippo led to bankruptcy of the factory and a three and a half year battle for the workers to get paid the entitlements they were owed. Nyumarno was instrumental in ensuring that the workers were finally paid. He now works as an advocate for the union defending workers’ rights in similar cases of mass dismissals in a challenging industrial relations environment.

The other union candidates who were ultimately unsuccessful all put in a huge effort and their campaign teams worked diligently and creatively on something they had never done before. FSPMI’s leaders were able to swing most union members behind the campaign. Their attitude of confidence and willingness to take a risk encouraged people to get on board.

As with all experiments, however, the union campaign was a process of trial and error. The union strategy of placing candidates with a number of parties did cause some confusion and was not always met with enthusiasm by the parties themselves. While the union considered ‘their candidates’ as part of one block, the parties considered ‘their candidates’ as representatives of the party. For example, some party leaders had a problem with their candidate’s picture being displayed in public places on the same poster with candidates from rival parties. They had a point. That is not how politics is usually played. These problems were usually sorted out with some careful diplomacy.

The successes and failures of this campaign are all good lessons. They will be analysed in the months and years to come in the places where Bekasi factory workers hang out. There is no doubt that the workers of Bekasi will be better prepared to tackle the next election in 2019, perhaps even with their own party.

Kirsty Hoban (khoban8@gmail.com) is an observer of the Indonesian labour movement.

Inside Indonesia 116: Apr-Jun 2014{jcomments on}

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