Fri, 26 Sep 2003

Mushrooming labor unions do not benefit workers

Ridwan Max Sijabat The Jakarta Post Jakarta

An expert expressed his deep concern over the huge number of labor unions that have sprung up in the reform era (since 1998), saying that this condition has weakened workers' bargaining power.

"With the existence of 75 labor unions registered with the Manpower and Transmigration Ministry, Indonesia has gone beyond the reform. This has proven that the huge number of labor unions has not benefited workers nor employers," H. Suwarto said while launching his book Hubungan Industri dalam praktek (industrial relations in practice) here on Thursday.

Suwarto, also former director general for industrial relations and labor supervision at the ministry, blamed the elite group for the huge number, since most labor unions did not grow from the grass roots but were established by groups seeking to fight for their own political interests.

"Out of the number, only a few (labor unions) were established by workers to represent them in negotiating with their employers. The remaining majority have few supporters, or are affiliated with certain political parties or certain religious organizations," he said.

According to data provided by the Manpower Ministry, the Confederation of Indonesian-Workers Union (KSPSI) and the Indonesian Prosperous Labor Union, are the only two major unions with two million members or more.

He explained that Indonesia has been "set back" to the period between 1955 and 1959 during which the labor movement was politicized. Almost all labor unions established during this period were closely affiliated with political parties and they did little to advance the conditions of workers.

"The more labor unions there are, the weaker the workers' bargaining position is. Workers have been fragmented into small and weak unions and this condition has confused employers... you can imagine... if an employer has to face ten or twenty unions in negotiating to reach a collective labor agreement (KKB)." he said. He cited the United States, as having more than 100 million workers, but only AFL-CIO, a merged confederation of a huge number of labor unions and professionals' associations.

Under former president Soeharto's militaristic-style regime, almost all labor unions were forced to shut down and only the All-Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI) -- established by the regime's kinos (supporters) -- was allowed to represent workers.

"We need one or two labor confederations from the grass roots to represent workers," he added.

Former manpower minister Cosmas Batubara called for the intensified education of workers, to improve their skills both in the work place and in bargaining with employers, two factors he said contribute to the establishment of harmonious industrial relations.

He said that the greater portion of the around-110-million work force in the country had no negotiating skills and most labor activists were also lacking both training and education.

"For example, many industrial disputes have emerged from workers' inability to understand the balance sheets of the companies where they are employed," he said. He concluded that, employers and the government should play an equal role in reaching industrial harmony and a conducive investment climate in the country.

Manpower and Transmigration Minister Jacob Nuwa Wea, stressed that the readiness of both employers and workers was essential in the acceleration of the country's economy and the improvement of workers' social welfare.

"Both workers and employers should have a sense of goodwill, in developing good industrial relations based on the law and the real condition of the companies where they are employed," he said.

Both Suwarto and Cosmas blamed weak law enforcement, besides security issues, for the reluctance of foreign investors to invest in Indonesia and the recent relocation of a number of companies overseas.

"We have a better law to cope with industrial disputes and to provide assurance for investors, but the government has yet to fully enforce it," said Suwarto, referring to the recent industrial dispute in the coal mining company PT Kaltim Prima Coal in Sangatta, East Kalimantan.

According to Cosmas, KPC's workers recently went on strike for weeks, to demand a bonus from the company's sale that they had no right to receive. The government did nothing to prevent the workers from striking, he said.

Suwarto regretted that the workers had acted after winning support from the Kutai administration, which also has an interest in the company.

He said he could understand the management's rejection of the workers' demands, because the workers had made unreasonable demands which they were not entitled to.