Indonesians Push for Labor Rights

Human rights groups say the `model developing economy' has undermined worker welfare

AS Indonesia convenes a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Jakarta this week, the US government announced that it will investigate allegations of forced labor and the military suppression of Indonesia's factory workers, who are among the lowest-paid in Southeast Asia.

Hearings in Washington, to be held this October by United States Trade Representative Carla Hills, could embarrass Indonesia's President Suharto. Mr. Suharto is expected to hold up his country at the summit as a model of development, marked by rapid economic growth and prompt repayment of debt. The investigation could lead to a cutoff of beneficial trade quotas under the General System of Preferences (GSP).

Petitions from human rights organizations such as Asia Watch and the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund have alleged a pattern of repression of Indonesia's independent labor unions. Under US law, foreign trade partners must provide acceptable working conditions, including the freedom to organize and bargain collectively, to qualify for GSP trade privileges. The US decision to review these privileges gives tacit support to critics who charge that Indonesian companies have sacrificed wo rker welfare for economic gain.

"We are not happy" with the US investigation, said Payaman Simanjuntak, director general of Industrial Relations and Labor Standards at Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower, in an interview. "There is nothing really new in the case submitted by Asia Watch." Indonesia avoided suspension during a similar GSP review in 1989.

Suspension of GSP privileges would mean a loss of face more than income. Less than 10 percent of Indonesia's $3.4 billion worth of exports to the US last year fell under GSP. Some analysts doubt the US will order GSP suspension, given its past hesitancy to upset relations with this strategic nation brimming with investment opportunities.

Indonesian officials see little to worry about.

"I don't think the United States is willing to do that," Mr. Simanjuntak said, referring to GSP suspension. "If the investigating committee finds something wrong with our system, it's a matter of negotiation. That will be the maximum."

But critics welcomed the move.

"Indonesia is very backward in terms of catching up to international labor standards," says Valentin Suazo, head of the AFL-CIO office in Jakarta. "Working conditions are horrendous in many factories."

In places like Tangerang, an industrial zone west of Jakarta, many factories do not pay the minimum wage, which barely tops $1 a day. Child labor is endemic. Local newspapers have reported a spate of mass food-poisoning at factory cafeterias.

More than 300 wildcat strikes have erupted in Indonesia's industrial centers since January, triple the official figure for all last year. Slowly, an independent labor movement is emerging, despite state surveillance, beatings, and expulsion of protesters.

"Humiliation is crueler than murder," reads a graffito on the door to a workers' dormitory room in Tangerang. "How long must I be patient?" asks another.

Workers have begun writing their own chronologies of labor disputes, surreptitiously photocopying and distributing them to inspire further action. Others meet weekly or monthly in clandestine study groups.

The Suharto government has an enormous stake in curbing any activism that might scare off foreign investors. Indonesia has pinned its future on rapid industrialization, shifting away from an oil-based economy.

Job creation is a priority in the world's fourth most populous nation, as 2.3 million Indonesians pour into the work force each year. With a 44 percent under-employment rate (only 3 percent are officially unemployed), new jobs are vital in defusing tension.

Simanjuntak conceded that the military breaks up strikes on the request of factory owners. "It is the duty of the military to come down right away if there is an invitation," he said. "Everybody is free to ask for help. If [managers] realize their life is in danger, how can they come to the Ministry of Manpower?" Most worker protests, however, have been conducted peacefully.

In principle, workers have the right to strike, but regulations make legal strikes difficult. An official labor manual states: "The use of pressures and unilateral actions such as strikes and lock-outs ... do not fall within the definition of the system."

Freedom to organize also falls victim to regulations. To be legally recognized, a union must be represented in 20 out of 27 provinces and establish 1,000 local units at the factory level. New groups rarely reach that stage, since few Indonesians would risk joining an illegal organization. A new labor union was launched last April, but the government has rejected its legitimacy on the grounds that local human rights groups support its activities.

The government argues that workers can redress their grievances through the All-Indonesia Workers' Union (SPSI), the sole intersectoral trade union with legal recognition. Many workers complain, however, that the SPSI fails to protect them, or lacks a branch in their factory. The union enjoys a symbiotic relationship with management and with Indonesia's ruling coalition, Golkar. Retired military officers hold key positions in the SPSI, as they do in the Ministry of Manpower.

Even Manpower Minister Cosmas Batubara is growing more critical of the SPSI. In mid-August he lashed out publicly at the SPSI for dragging its feet in setting up sectoral unions. Critics say this is the government's strategy to change the SPSI's monolithic image and win allies among the overseas labor federations that now refuse to recognize it. There is, however, no indication that these new sectoral unions would be given any autonomy.

The government maintains it has taken significant steps to enforce compliance with labor laws. Simanjuntak said he has met with some 2,000 employers over the past year and a half in an "intensive campaign" to encourage them to cooperate. Indonesia-based researchers argue that stricter enforcement would, in fact, be in the best interest of both government and management. Low pay and forced overtime have resulted in high absenteeism and low productivity.

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