Building the Indonesian Labour Movement - An interview with the union SBMNI

Since the fall of the dictator Suharto, the Indonesian working class has been in a constant struggle to build up its own organisations. But they are seriously hampered in this by the economic crisis and the resulting mass unemployment, even more than before. On top of that comes the ongoing repression by the employers, the government and the military.

Since the fall of the dictator Suharto, the Indonesian working class has been in a constant struggle to build up its own organisations. But they are seriously hampered in this by the economic crisis and the resulting mass unemployment, even more than before. On top of that comes the ongoing repression by the employers, the government and the military.

In spite of some small democratic reforms in political life, Indonesian society is still dominated by an elite that thinks they can do whatever they want. Even the use of physical violence remains a typical way to resolve labour disputes and break up strikes. Recently, such brutality led to the death of the worker Kimun Effendi, 21 years old. A gang of thugs, hired by the employer, attacked workers who were striking for better wages at the company PT Kadera AR Indonesia, a subcontractor of Toyota. Several other workers were taken to hospital because of serious injuries. Since the role of the military in labour affairs is reduced (a little), the employers have shifted their tactics to using another bunch of armed men, namely hired gangsters.

Despite these dangerous conditions, more and more workers are courageously taking up the struggle for their interests as a class. One can see a proliferation of unions and their branches all over Indonesia. One of these young and militant unions is SBMNI, the Solidarity Maritime Workers and Fishermen of Indonesia. SBMNI was established on June 29, 2000, and consists of four sectors: seamen, fishermen, port workers and port transport workers. In the beginning, the union only counted some 350 members, but after only a few months, there are already more than 15,000 members. Before their organisational drive, the ports were totally dominated by the yellow union SPSI, and other GOLKAR affiliates. (Note: GOLKAR is the party of the former dictator Suharto.) SBMNI was the first independent union in the port, and now other unions are also finding their way to the port workers.

As a preface to the interview we had with the general secretary of SBMNI, Mohamad Irfan, and his union comrades, we would like to give the introduction of a pamphlet they produced. This gives a good outline of the broader context in which their actions are taking place.

"The conditions of the loaders and unloaders, and the transport workers in the port of Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta, are worsening from year on year. Before the economic crash of Indonesia in mid 1997, this was already happening. After the crisis, which turned into a crash, it became even worse. Based on the research that has been carried out by the Council of the Central Leadership of the Solidarity Maritime Workers and Fishermen (DPP SBMNI), we can state that the worsening conditions of labour are linked to difficult and complex problems. The functionaries who are experts in port and labour affairs, the entrepreneurs and the organisations of the entrepreneurs who are active in, and linked with, the port, have developed an even more negative attitude against the workers since the start of the crisis. The way the port is run and its management are already a disadvantage for the workers. But now, the service sector and its efficiency continue to worsen everywhere in the port of Tanjung Priok.

"If this does not change, it will definitively be a loss for the workers. It is detrimental for the living conditions of the port workers and their families, counting thousands of people, as well as for the operation of the port of Tanjung Priok, which is the most important port in Indonesia. On top of that, this case is linked with the process of globalisation, which is moving faster and faster, whether in the context of the Asian Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), or the World Trade Organisation (WTO)."

Interview with the union SBMNI

Can you give some examples of actions SBMNI has undertaken?

November 9 and 10, 2000, we held a two-day strike in the port of Tanjung Priok, North Jakarta. Ten thousand port and transport workers participated. This was the first strike in Indonesia in this sector.

Some of our demands are:

1) The status of permanent worker. Now nobody has a permanent status, we are all contract workers, who can be laid off from one day unto the other.
2) A wage of at least 600,000 rupiah per month (about US$60). A lot of workers only earn 100,000 rp. per month (about US$10!), although the official minimum wage is 400,000 rp., which is already low.
3) A pension of at least 10,000,000 rp. Now the workers get a one-off pension of 700,000 rp., even if they have worked here for 30 years. Because of that, older workers prefer to work until they die. Then their wife and children get 2,500,000 rp.
4) Abolition of illegal money for the officers and reform of the port management, to make loading and unloading more efficient. Now the port is rife with corruption. For instance, truckers have to pay at every gate, including taxes, customs, and bribery of the security and the military. If one trucker drives through all the gates, he pays 30,000 rp. in total. Knowing that every day approximately 5,000 truckers pass through, this means a sum of 15,000,000 rp. a day!
5) For the transport workers, a 30% commission on the standard tariff of ORGANDA (the port transport corporations association), with a minimum of 344,000 rp. Now the wage depends on the amount of orders, and accounts only for 17.5 to 25% of the ORGANDA tariff.
6) The establishment of CLA's. Until this moment, the employers refuse to bargain with us.
7) The rejection of unilateral sacking by the employer.
8) The establishment of a tripartite body. When the government is present, we hope the employers will have abide by government labour regulations.
9) Freedom of association. Employers still do not recognise independent unions and try to destroy them, for instance by firing the shop stewards.

Since the employers rejected all our demands, we plan to hold a second strike on May Day, at the same moment we are organising a big action with several other unions. Our former demands still apply, but now we focus on a few general demands.

1) The abolition of all illegal money collection.
2) Clean up the New Order in the port. (Note: The New Order is the name of the regime of the former dictator Suharto, in this case especially referring to the role of the military and corruption.)
3) Abolish all regulations made by the New Order, because they are detrimental to the workers.
4) Establish a port management that favours the workers.
5) The establishment of CLA's.

Because the port of Tanjung Priok is the most important port in Indonesia, our strikes can seriously hurt the port companies, and companies that depend on us. We calculated that the previous strike inflicted serious damage on several sectors. For instance, we estimate the loss in textiles at 20 billion rp. and in shipping at 12 billion rp. The total loss inflicted is 1.5 trillion rp., according to our calculations. Indeed, since Tanjung Priok is the biggest international port in Indonesia, we have a strategic position as a union.

In your introductory text, you refer to globalisation and the impact of the WTO, APEC and AFTA on the port workers. Can you explain this a little more?

For example, multinationals can now buy up 100% of state companies for, because of the privatisation drive. In that way, the Hong Kong based British multinational Hutchinson became the biggest shareholder in the Jakarta International Container Terminal. Although the situation before was not ideal either, the state still gave better working conditions. Hutchinson keeps on mechanising and this leads to lay-offs. During the 1980s, there were 12,000 port workers. After the mechanisation only 7,000 workers remain, a reduction by almost a half of the work force.

What about your relations with other unions?

We have good relations with, for instance, GARTEKS of SBSI (Note: probably the best known union of Indonesia's militant garment and textiles sector), STA of SBSI (Note: transport and loaders and unloaders), FNPBI (Note: the radical union led by Dita Sari), and SPSI-Reformasi (Note: the split-off from the yellow union SPSI). We are also a part of the Forum Solidaritas Union (FSU), a forum of most of the Indonesian federations, and we have already carried out some joint actions, for example, against the increase in oil prices, somewhat like the actions in Europe last year. On May Day, we have a joint action at the Monas, the national monument. We will put forward some general demands of the workers movement of Indonesia, focusing on the abolition of all labour laws and regulations implemented by the New Order. This includes the freedom to associate and the abolition of all contract work. Our own agenda is related to these big issues.

It is a pity that the working class organisations are still so fragmented into more than 30 unions. This largely derives from the euphoria after the breakdown of the Suharto era. The sense of democracy, linked to the former situation of only one state union, SPSI, makes for the proliferation of trade unions. In spite of our support for these struggles and organising, we think it is in the interest of the working class that we form a common front in one union. Actually, it is the leaders of the unions that are the biggest obstacle to this. The leadership mostly does not come from a workers' background, but from the middle class and academic circles. More importantly, there are a lot of petty jealousies, and they do not want to lose their position as leaders.

Nevertheless, there are attempts to unite the unions. One example of this is the already mentioned FSU. In this forum, we try to develop one ethic to remove this unhealthy competition. The companies use this competition between the unions to divide the workers. Competition is damaging to the interests of the class. Therefore, we have draw up a code around which to unite. This code states that members of the FSU should work together to face the employers. It is the task of the unions to socialise this code. The workers want this too, the only problem is the leadership. But there is still a long way to go.

In your opinion, what political strategy should the unions follow?

The unions do not trust the political parties, because they are only interested in power. The political consciousness of the workers is still very low, they are mostly focused on economic questions and the daily struggle. It is a pity, but most of them do not understand politics. They vote for personalities rather than for political programs.

Our union sees the development of political consciousness as one of our main tasks, but we need more time. First we have to unite the unions more. The breakdown of the New Order led to the awakening of the working class. The first step is organisation, increasing the training and education. How to conquer a CLA? How to make a program? How to plan our activities? Those are our current concerns.

Thank you very much for the interview.

The reader has probably noted that SBMNI still works in very unfavourable conditions. So every little bit of international solidarity will give them new strength to accomplish their task.

Their e-mail is:

Please, do not hesitate to send them your support.