Wed, 15 Jan 2003

Labor movement in Indonesia still weak

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The recent protest involving only about 3,000 workers in Jakarta, instead of the threatened 25,000 people, is further proof of how weak the labor movement in Indonesia is, and of its failure so far to harness its potentially powerful political leverage, say labor experts.

The fragmented labor movement is seen as one of the main contributing factors to the failure of the protest, according to former manpower minister Bomer Pasaribu

"Unions in Indonesia are similar to political parties. There are too many of them, but only a few of them have clear programs to fight for their common goals," Bomer told The Jakarta Post on Monday.

Official records show that there are more than 60 registered national labor union federations, 140 labor unions and some 11,000 company-level unions.

Those unions have an estimated combined membership of 11 million workers.

The huge membership claimed by labor unions could become a powerful political force if they united to fight for their common interests.

"Unfortunately, these unions are divided based on ethnic group, religion and political affiliation. Not to mention the various organizational, managerial and leadership problems that also affect them," said Bomer, who is also the chairman of the Center for Labor and Development Studies (CLDS).

Another factor, according to labor expert Tutur Suwito, is the low social awareness of workers. Consequently, they will join rallies or protests only if the issues directly affect them individually.

"Many workers decided not to join the recent protests (against the price hikes) as they had yet to feel the effects of the hikes," said the former chairman of the Jakarta Labor Institute (IPJ).

"If the price hikes cause their company to lay them off, it is only then that they will react to the hikes. It has always been like that with other issues. Instead of proposing programs that could improve their welfare, workers impulsively react to existing policies," added Tutur.

Weak leadership is also responsible for the unions' failure to mobilize large crowds to protest the recent price hikes.

Many unions in Indonesia were founded, and later managed, by non-governmental organization (NGO) activists, such as Dita Indah Sari and Muchtar Pakpahan.

This, sometimes, inadvertently results in the workers being too dependent upon their activist patrons, thus impairing the capacity-building process among the workers themselves.

This weak leadership is also the result of the long history of oppression instituted by former president Soeharto, who allowed only government-sanctioned unions to exist.

This New Order oppression has impaired the labor movement's ability to groom potential leaders from among the ranks of workers, and also significantly increased the workers' distrust of unions.

The labor movement has grown significantly since the fall of Soeharto, and, in fact, several labors unions, according to Bomer, have shown their ability to pursue a clear agenda and mobilize their members in doing so.

"Labor unions in state-owned companies are far better than those in private firms. They are more capable of mobilizing their members and are less tainted by particular political interests," he said.

In order to empower labor unions, Bomer stressed the need for an improved labor law, especially after the implementation of regional autonomy.

In addition, Bomer suggested the establishment of an equal and meaningful bipartite relationship between workers and employers, and a tripartite relationship involving the government, so as to facilitate negotiations to resolve disputes.