Indonesian socialist speaks on the workers’ fightback

Sultoni Farras is the head of the Indonesian trade union federation Progesip and a leader of the union alliance Sekber Buruh. For his work organising a strike in a wig factory, he has been victimised by Indonesian police and is facing charges. He is a member of the socialist organisation the KPO-PRP. Sulthoni spoke to Australian activists at Keep Left 2013 on the rising tide of workers’ struggle in Indonesia.

“Although we’ve already seen the fall of the dictator Suharto in Indonesia, the situation economically and socially is not that different to living under the dictatorship.The last two years, we’ve really seen a growth in the movements, particularly a rise of the workers movement in Indonesia. Workers have taken up radical methods to push for different demands including against low wages, out-sourcing, contract work, issues for female workers and various policies that don’t meet the needs of people.

A starting point could be seen in 2011, when the general population and particularly workers became increasingly angry. Workers at the Freeport mine in the Papua province led the way, struggling for fair wages. Several of them were killed and the struggle really started to take off at this point.

From that you saw several other issues emerging, particularly those around low wages and out-sourcing. There was some legal changes at this point, but this didn’t do enough for workers and we started to see more radical measures such as strikes, blocking toll roads, stopping production in whole industry areas. In 2012 in particular major toll roads were blocked and this managed to win a higher minimum wage for this year.

This is becoming an issue every year now, a fight for a higher minimum wage. The workers come out to demand it goes up. At first it was only in two industrial areas that there was this fight, with strikes, blocking toll roads and so on. But it’s becoming more of a general trend, with many industrial areas right across Indonesia taking on these tactics.

Wages still aren’t good enough. But the contract work issue is also becoming more serious. The law says workers should only be on short term contracts for a maximum of three years. But we’re seeing some workers being on these contracts for ten years or more. This is unacceptable. At the end of 2011, the workers started to fight hard for permanent positions, occupying factories and winning their demands very quickly.

Ramping up

The tactics are now becoming even more radical. There is a tactic being used called Gruduk, where workers striking in one factory will move on to bring workers in the surrounding factories out on strike in solidarity. They actually take the boss and management hostage, surrounding factories and charging in. There have been examples where in just one day the demands are met. Wanted or not, the bosses must meet their demands.

Of particular importance is the national strike that occurred in October 2012. We haven’t seen a national strike in Indonesia for many years. This strike won a significant rise in wages—much more than has been seen before.

Then what the workers started to face was moves by the government and companies to crack down on their actions. There were many different tactics used, but the ability to protest and strike was restricted. There were mass sackings in many factories and the criminalisation of leaders of the movement. But the movement won’t stop—it continues to grow.

Workers are taking up bigger issues now, not just in their own workplaces, but issues which affect other sections of Indonesian society. There is a slogan which has been taken up by many in the workers movement—“workers power means prosperity for the people”. Last month they responded to the fuel price rises that occurred by joining others such as students in fighting these. They paralysed industrial areas with blockades, helping to stop the fuel price rises.

They’ve also been very active fighting anti-democratic policies being put in place by the Indonesian government recently.

Workers have called a national strike in October to again raise this issue of the need for a higher minimum wage.

The strike will also be an important intervention in debates about the Indonesian Presidential election which is coming up in 2014, putting workers issues on the agenda.”


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