Massive strike after 50 years against outsourcing and cheap wages

On 3 October, more than two million workers in Indonesia launched a national strike to demand their long-ignored rights and welfare be recognised by the employers and the government of Indonesia. Although protests and strike action by workers are common nowadays in Indonesia, this national strike has been deemed as very important progress for the labour movement in Indonesia. This is the largest national strike conducted for almost 50 years. It involved more than 80 industrial areas throughout Indonesia. Although the action occurred simultaneously in more than 20 cities, the focus was the area of Bekasi, located on the outskirts of Jakarta. Industrial estates in Bekasi currently produce 70% of Indonesian manufacturing exports and recently have become the centre for mobilizing workers. Workers in Bekasi have often taken action to shut down the industrial areas, the toll roads and other public infrastructure as a means of pressuring the government to fulfil their rights and needs.

Since the ‘reformasi’ movement in 1998 that overthrew the autocratic regime of Suharto, demonstrations in the streets, outside government offices and parliament to raise various issues have become a common sight and routine in the everyday life of inhabitants in Jakarta. Not the least important factor is that some of these demonstrations have ended with riots or, at a minimum, have created massive traffic jams. However, in this national strike, there no serious incidents occurred. Currently, workers’ consciousness in Indonesia is not limited just to issues that relate to the factories where they work, but also takes in political issues. Protest actions such as shutting down industrial areas, roads and giving solidarity to the workers’ struggles in other factories often highlight the determination of the working class in Indonesia to struggle for genuine change. This illustrates that although the people of Indonesia have liberated the nation from the dictatorship of the Suharto regime in 1998, they have been continuously shackled by various economic and social issues under pro-capitalist governments since then.

Protest in Karawang Industrial estate in Bekasi, 3 October 2012

"Remove outsourcing and stop cheap wages"

The proposal for a national strike was propagated for the first time by the Council of Labour Employees Indonesia (MPBI), an organization that includes trade unions established on May Day 2012. It started in August when MPBI protested against the policies of the Manpower and Transmigration Minister, who issued a law setting standards of living for workers as a reference to set the minimum wage. The law only specifies 60 basic items needed for workers to achieve a decent life. But workers know better what they need and felt that the 60 items was not enough. Based on the research they had done and supported by data in several other studies, the fewest number of basic items needed by the workers to have a decent living was calculated at 86.

In a press release, MPBI said it was not just protesting against the new law but also asked the government to stop the practice of outsourcing that is highly detrimental to workers’ contracts. By using outsourced labour, the employer only gives short-term contracts to workers without any guarantee they will became permanent employees later. Under this system, employers are freed from the responsibility to provide pension funds, health insurance, job security and other basic benefits to employees. Since July 2012, trade unions in Indonesia have initiated campaigns against this system with the slogan: "Remove Outsourcing and Stop Cheap Wages". These two demands are followed by the demand for social security for employees fully borne by the employer.

On 24 September, MPBI officially set 3 October for a national strike involving two million workers across Indonesia. This was the first call for a national strike against the practice of outsourcing and cheap wages policies since the 1998 ‘reformasi’. Although the proposal was initiated by MPBI, the strike call was also supported by other unions; the Joint Secretariat (SEKBER) for labour, a trade union confederation, which is more radical, supported the strike and its initiatives.

The strike plan was transmitted to the factories of every trade union under MPBI and SEKBER, as well as other trade unions and workers’ organizations. Students at various campuses also expressed support. They demonstrated on campus to support the workers’ demands and workers’ initiate for strike action the day before the workers’ national strike.

Jakarta, 3 October 2012

Overwhelming response from working class

Jakarta is the metropolitan city usually known for its traffic jams but on 3 October the city was not dense with motorists, since most who normally fill the streets in the city centre had gone to the outskirts of Jakarta to give solidarity support to the workers on strike. Therefore, the road congestion which occurs every day in the centre of Jakarta moved to the industrial suburbs.

As early as 8am, workers wearing either their factory or union uniforms were already gathered in their respective plants. In some industrial areas in Bekasi and Tangerang, workers riding on motorcycle or even walking visited one factory after another factory to get the workers on strike. Until 2pm, at 23 different venues in Bekasi alone, the number of workers on strike was half a million. This paralyzed the industrial activities in the area. In Tangerang, the workers struck at 27 different places where the employers used scare tactics against the workers by threatening to close the plant if the strike continued. The port area of North Jakarta was filled by thousands of workers on motorcycles who then joined up with lorry drivers. The trade union for truck drivers in this area also agreed not to work on the day. In Cakung industrial area, hundreds of women workers visited and urged factory managers to allow employees to leave work and join them in the strike. Some managers allowed the employees not to work but some confined the workers in the factory. In the case of the Nusantara Bonded Area (KBN) in North Jakarta, the factory gate had to be demolished to free the workers! Visiting factories like this (‘sweeping’) is a very effective method in involving masses of workers. In total, 10,000 workers who initially refused eventually joined other workers on strike.

The national strike also hit other cities. Thousands of workers besieged the governor’s office in West Java, forcing the governor to announce the cancellation of outsourcing practice in the province immediately. In other areas, workers protested by closing down roads, the entrances to industrial areas, and have also gained significant victories from this strike.

Capitalists and governments in unity

This strike is a very important step forward in raising awareness and enhancing the work of organizing workers in Indonesia but as usual it attracted great opposition from the employers and capitalists. The Asian Development Bank spokesman in Indonesia urged the Indonesian government not to concede to the workers’ demands as, according to him, outsourcing has many benefits for factory operators, especially for financial savings. The head of the Indonesian Entrepreneurs Association, Sofjan Wanandi, threatened that the machines would be fully used to replace workers in the factories if workers continue to demonstrate and strike as a way to fight for their demands. Indeed, the employers lost a relatively large amount of profit due to the national strike. The government also condemned the workers’ actions as damaging the nation economy. Dita Indah Sari, who once was a radical labour activist and former PRD (People’s Democratic Party) leader, but is now the spokesperson for the Ministry of Labour, said: “Labour strike action does not have a sound basis since the government is willing to negotiate.”

Although some of the workers demanded that the strike continue for the following three days, MPBI, without an agreement with workers, declared the strike accomplished in the afternoon. According to a press statement issued at 4pm from MPBI, the strike was stopped because MPBI will engage in dialogue with the government on the workers’ demands. They expected that a result of the dialogue will come out in two weeks.

Building fighting unions and a mass working class party

The scepticism of several more radical unions who expected MPBI to cancel the strike has been proved correct. However, of all the achievements that have been gained by workers during the strike, the decision made by MPBI was the most disappointing for workers. This step is the most effective way to undermine workers awareness that began to rise from the experiences of the strike. Workers can see that solidarity struggles against the capitalist oppression of workers are not limited to co-workers in their own factory, but also have prevailed across factories, districts, unions and other sectors of society as well.

MPBI also warned that they would mobilize a large number of workers in the next national strike if their demands are not met within two weeks. The government, in a letter the day after the strike, said it will seek a more favourable solution for workers. But the question is: what guarantee is there that the workers’ demands will be met? In the letter, the government said that it could take a long time, a year at the earliest, to change all the policies. It is clear that the workers’ demands will not be implemented within two weeks. Furthermore, during the process of negotiations there is no guarantee that the government will favour workers and there will be pressure, threats and bribes from employers to make the government follow their wishes.

The readiness and maturity of the workers should be tested through political awareness and their persistence to struggle against the capitalists and the all elements that support them, and it should not be determined by some trade union leaders who do not fully believe in the strength of the workers. However, the Indonesian workers have once again realized their power cannot be simply deceived by the government and capitalists, and they will continuously fight for their rights and needs. This will also lead to demands from workers for fighting trade union leaders based on the wishes of workers and not succumbing to the pressures of the capitalists and government. This strike also shows that the Indonesian working class has begun to realize that changes of government are not enough to acquire genuine social and economic change, when the various pro-capitalist governments since 1998 have continuously supported discrimination by the subjugation of workers’ rights and needs to free-market capitalism.

While, according to the Asian Development Bank report this week, the free-market economy of Indonesia has been deemed as ‘strong’, it has started to decline due to the global economic crisis, and this will certainly further undermine the needs and rights of the working class and the poor. This emphasizes the urgent need for the working class and the poor in Indonesia to work to build a mass party of the working class and poor people to replace the capitalist system that emphasizes the maximum profits for a small group of national and international capitalists to a system of democratic socialism that would maximize the democracy, rights and needs of the working class and the poor.

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