Below is an excerpt from a Straits Time article, reprinted in The Jakarta Globe, discussing increased labor unrest in Indonesia. This is a theme that has been raised in a number of different articles on labor in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more generally. While there have been some high profile strikes recently, most notably at Freeport and Garuda, I have yet to see an article that thoroughly differentiates whether this is a trend or just a series of high-profile disputes. It certainly is worth noting, though, how the Freeport strike may be having spill-over effects.
But the days of docile labor may be changing, with a 6.5 percent growth spurt giving many Indonesians a new-found prosperity.
The three-month-long strike at Freeport Indonesia’s copper and gold mine is significant because of its unmistakable message: that employers cannot expect business as usual when commodity prices – and profits – are at an all-time high.
“It is having a huge impact,” Indonesian Employers Association chairman Sofyan Wanandi told The Straits Times, pointing to the way unions are educating themselves on the Internet. “The workers here are trying to copy what they are doing at Freeport and our government is too weak (to respond).”
Faced with a threatened strike – and a looming gubernatorial election – Jakarta’s city administration last week buckled to demands for a 20 percent increase in the monthly minimum wage to 1.52 million rupiah (S$220) – the lowest salary for a single person with less than a year’s experience.
More than 10,000 workers marched in Batam on Nov 24 demanding a similar increase, and there have been signs of further unrest among state railway, airline and telecommunications employees, and in industrial parks around the nation’s capital.
Only 3.3 million of Indonesia’s workers belong to unions, or 10 percent of those in the formal economy, which in turn is just a third of the total economy. That number is actually less than what it was in previous years, but labor experts say it takes time to build a genuine movement.
Apart from the Confederation of All-Indonesia Workers’ Union, the only state-sanctioned union during the Suharto era, there are now three other confederations embracing nearly 80 different federations and 11,000 workplace unions.
Critics claim the national-level organizations have been hijacked by political interests, leaving the workers in much the same situation as before, with inadequate wages and poor conditions.
The cash-strapped confederations are more political in their approach because their main role is to lobby for changes to the labor laws and seek improved social protection. They are also very weak.
Freeport union leader Sudiro seems to have forged stronger linkages to international labor organizations, such as the United Steelworkers, than to his own confederation.