There’s a view in Indonesia that unions are a man’s world. It’s a vicious circle, and although many women have joined unions in recent years, almost none of them get to be anything but ordinary members. I’ve been fighting for women’s rights within the union movement for a quarter of a century. Some things have changed, but too much stays the same.
I first became involved in the union movement in the early 1980s. For a long time I was the deputy head of the Jakarta branch of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union. I did my best, organising training sessions and informal meetings for women activists in the union. But it was difficult to achieve much because the government kept a tight leash on the union, and a lot of my colleagues were more interested in getting into bed with Golkar than in workers’ rights.
Working for women
Then in 1986, the union established the LWRA (Institute for Women, Teenagers and Children) and I became its secretary. The union didn’t give us any resources other than a legal identity and an office — not even office furniture. But being neglected was not all bad. We had a lot more freedom in the LWRA, because the union executives didn’t take us seriously. For the next ten years we raised money from a whole range of sources and ran programs to help women workers. We taught them about their rights, established shelters, and conducted research into their working conditions.
Our activities didn’t escape attention. Every time we ran something, intelligence officers posing as journalists or amateur photographers would be there. When workers at PT Sandratex went on strike in the early 1990s, the activists who ran our shelter in south Jakarta were accused of being behind it. The shelter was surrounded by police and intelligence officers for days. At the time, many students were being abducted, so we stopped our regular discussion meetings for fear that the shelter activists would be taken away.
After the fall of Suharto, I joined the group that split from SPSI (the official union) to form SPSI Reformasi. I became the head of the Women’s and Children’s Bureau. We started again with our training for women workers, our newsletter and so on.
I tried to move into the mainstream in 1999 when I headed the Congress Organising Committee for the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union (SP TSK). At the congress, I was nominated for election as chairperson of the union, even though I knew I had no chance because 80 per cent of the congress delegates were men. Then I tried for the general secretary’s position. Of course I didn’t get elected for that either, although the numbers were better than I thought. I was given a token role on the executive as a consolation prize, but I resigned mid-term. At the 2003 congress, I was finally elected as chairperson of the union. I gained majority support because my resignation two years earlier had been on an issue of principle, and because I had played a leading role on behalf of SPSI Reformasi in the campaign for a new labour law which was passed that year. I was even a member of the joint union-employer group which negotiated the wording of the new law.
A lot has changed since the fall of Suharto. I am optimistic that the role of women in trade unions can now expand. It has become easier for women to get information about the labour movement through NGOs as well as unions. And the women’s movement campaign for a 30 per cent quota for women in leadership positions has also forced some changes. For example, women cadres from our shelter program have become union leaders at the provincial level in Jakarta and Surabaya. It shows that persistence can really create change for the better.
Ari Sunarijati (email@example.com) is the director of the Women’s and Children’s Bureau of FSPSI Reformasi and head of a new Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union