Jan 28, 2023 Last Updated 12:03 AM, Jan 26, 2023

Labour loses - again

Michele Ford

Although unions have gained ground industrially in Indonesia, this hasn’t translated into electoral success. In fact, this year’s legislative election results show there’s been next to no improvement politically for labour in the five years since the last general election.

Back then, four parties ostensibly represented labour’s interests. Two of those — Muchtar Pakpahan’s Partai Buruh Nasional (National Labour Party) and Wilhelmus Bhoka’s Partai Pekerja Indonesia (The Indonesian Workers’ Party) — had trade union connections. The other two were rumoured to be fronts for Suharto’s interests.

They didn’t do well. Although Pakpahan’s National Labour Party was the most successful of the four, it received just 140,980 votes, or 0.13 per cent of the national total, a far cry from the two per cent threshold required to maintain formal party status. If you add the other three ‘labour’ parties and the radical, pro-worker Partai Rakyat Demokratik (Democratic People’s Party), you get a grand total of 394,556 votes, or 0.37 per cent of votes cast. Needless to say, no labour party candidates made it into the parliament that year.

In 2004, there was only one labour party amongst the 24 on the legislature ballot paper: Muchtar Pakpahan’s reconstituted Partai Buruh Sosial Demokrat (Social Democratic Labour Party). None of the other labour parties survived 1999. Even PRD’s successor, the Partai Persatuan Oposisi (United Opposition Party) didn’t make the 2004 ballot.

Despite the fall in the number of parties, the labour vote was marginally better this year. The Social Democratic Labour Party attracted 636,397 votes, or 0.56 per cent. But in the big picture, these results were abysmal. The Indonesian industrial workforce is huge: over 13 per cent of all Indonesian workers are employed in the manufacturing sector alone. What’s more, the big three union confederations claim a collective membership of nearly 10 million workers. Although numbers of due-paying members are definitely lower than these estimates, it seems even many workers organised in unions don’t think it’s worth voting labour.

Is it because the other big parties treat labour issues seriously? The presidential election campaigns suggest not. A quick survey of the platform statements prepared before the first presidential round demonstrates that workers and their organisations don’t figure highly on the national agenda. All presidential teams made references to social justice, and most promised to expand employment opportunities. But the only presidential candidate to make a direct reference to workers’ welfare was (would you believe it!) retired general Wiranto, the most hard-line candidate in the field.

This omission can’t be put down to the level of detail in the statements. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s statement, for instance, talked about micro-industry, farmers and fishers, but was deafeningly silent on industrial labour. Both Amien Rais and Hamzah Haz plugged the rights of industry rather than workers. Amien took the gentle approach, arguing he would seek to ‘reduce industrial conflict’ (read that as you will). But Hamzah didn’t mince words, saying he aimed to achieve ‘industrial control and certainty’. Most ironic of all, though, was the statement by Megawati. Beyond a couple of cursory remarks about equality, the presidential candidate representing the ‘little people’ made no reference to the little people at all.

It was clear, then, from very early on that no matter who won the presidential election, labour was sure to lose. But why doesn’t labour have the voting muscle to match its union base?

The reasons for labour’s poor turnout are complex. Some of them relate to the characteristics of the workers themselves. There are strong internal ties in particular working-class suburbs, but there is little sense of community amongst Indonesia’s waged workforce as a whole. Instead, a rigid hierarchy exists between different groups of workers, who rarely recognise their common interests.

But much of the problem lies with the unions. Although debates about the ‘proper’ function and composition of unions rage in Indonesia, by and large the current generation of labour activists has inherited an allergy to ‘political’ unionism. Their suspicions stem partly from the New Order’s negative take on Indonesian labour history, and partly from memories of how the Suharto government itself used organised labour for its own purposes.

There’s a long way to go before workers can conceivably have a big impact on formal politics. However optimism is important, if not always warranted. Here’s hoping that organised labour will be in a position to win at least one seat when the next legislative election rolls around.

Michele Ford (michele.ford@flinders.edu.au) teaches at Flinders University and is Deputy Chair of the IRIP Board.

Inside Indonesia 81: Jan-Mar 2005

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