Indonesia: Series of Strikes in the Cigarette Industry

Strikes at two cigarette factories in Indonesia highlight the growing militancy of workers who receive miserable starvation wages. The strikes at PT Cakra Guna Cipta, who are organized by the SPBI and at the PT Pakis Mas cigarette factory are a clear example of this growing mood of anger and determination to win better wages and conditions.

The cigarette industry is one of the biggest industries in Indonesia. Based on 2004 labour statistics, it employs 259 thousands workers, or 1.16% of the total industrial workers. However, don't let this number fool you. The cigarette industry alone contributes to over 8% of state tax revenues (42 trillion Rupiah in 2006 or US$3.4billion), making it the largest taxpayer in Indonesia. In every corner of every town, one can see cigarette advertisements. It is the major sponsor of many sports: from soccer to badminton. It sponsors many awards for students and even a prestigious award for journalists, the Sampoerna Award. Just like the auto industry in the US, the cigarette industry is seen as the pride of the nation.

However, in Indonesia the fact that this industry has the title of the largest industry does not mean that the workers of that industry are paid high wages. On the contrary, the workers in the cigarette industry are one of the most exploited sectors. The fact that there is so much money made from this industry should tell us something about the state of the workers. The average wage of the tobacco agricultural workers in Indonesia is only 47% of the average wage in Indonesia. The majority of the factory workers are barely making the minimum wage and work under very poor working condition with no job security or any benefits. Most of them are not paid hourly but paid according to how many cigarettes they produce. In one company, PT Pakis Mas, the workers are paid Rp.8000 for every 1000 cigarettes rolled (that is 0.06 US cents per cigarette).

Strike: The only weapon of the workers

However, in the face of such exploitation, the workers have been organizing and fighting back. Since the fall of the Soeharto regime, there has been more room for workers to organize their own unions outside the government's yellow unions. The workers are learning that they can win if they band together and strike.

Hundreds of cigarette workers of PT Cakra Guna Cipta went on strike to demand that they be paid according to the new regional minimum wage set.
Hundreds of cigarette workers of PT Cakra Guna Cipta went on strike to demand that they be paid according to the new regional minimum wage set.

In East Java, there has been a series of strikes by the cigarette workers in the past few weeks. On February 18, hundreds of cigarette workers of PT Cakra Guna Cipta, who are organized by SPBI (Solidaritas Perjuangan Buruh Indonesia, Indonesian Workers' Struggle Solidarity), went on strike to demand that they be paid according to the new regional minimum wage set on January 1, 2009. The new 2009 minimum wage is Rp.954,500 (US$78) per month, however two months into the year the boss was still paying the workers Rp.802,000 (US$66) per month. The workers are also demanding pensions.

A couple of months after negotiations failed, because the boss was refusing to budge, the workers went on strike. With strong strike action, the workers have shown their collective will and the boss finally agreed to pay them the new minimum wage, nearly a 20% increase in their wage. Although to be sure, the new minimum wage is still a poverty wage.

The Story of the Cigarette Rollers

On the same day, hundreds of workers at the PT Pakis Mas cigarette factory also went on strike. Organized by the SPBI, the workers demanded an increase in their pay from Rp.8000 (US$0.65) for every 1000 cigarettes produced to Rp.14600 (US$1.20). In one 11-hour work day, a single worker produce 2500 cigarettes, making less than 2 dollars a day.

Aditya Wardhana, a journalist, wrote a piece about the working conditions in that factory. Here is an excerpt from Nasib Sang Pelinting, November 28, 2008):

"That morning, at 5.20am, Ana arrived in front of the PT Pakis Mas factory. The green factory gate was firmly shut. There was still 10 minutes before the morning hue and cry start. Ana opened her meal box. Rice and tofu with sauce. She ate her breakfast in silence. One by one, Ana's friends arrive. They said hello to each other.

"Exactly at 5.30am, the factory gate was opened. Sreek! Without waiting for command, around two hundred workers stormed the factory entrance. Ana didn't want to miss this. The breakfast which was not that nutritional was left. She put her worn-out meal box in her bag.

"For Ana and her friends, being in the front of the line is an important matter. This is survival of the fittest factory-style. ‘We have to line up so that we can get a lot of raw materials', said Ana. Workers who are the closest to the desk of the supervisor can have the opportunity to get more raw materials to roll more cigarettes.

"And don't mess around with the supervisor. If the supervisor doesn't like the worker, there won't be less raw materials for that worker, or even none at all. If the supervisor doesn't like someone, that person can get no work at all even if he/she is in front of the line. Dispute between the workers and the supervisor is inevitable. But, ‘the position of the supervisor is stronger, so we have to submit,' said this girl from Malang.

"In PT Pakis Mas, every worker is given 2500 cigarettes to roll every day. The pay is Rp 8000 for every 1000 cigarettes. So in a week, Ana pockets Rp135,000 or Rp 540,000 (US$44) every month. This is far below the regional minimum wage of Malang, which is Rp 802,000 (2008 minimum wage). Ana has to work all day to receive this pay, cannot go absent because of sickness.

"Ruchan, the owner of PT Pakis Mas, explained that the payment of the cigarette rollers is piecemeal based. ‘You don't work, you don't get paid', Ruchan emphasized. Simple.

"With such principles, it is normal that workers fight over the raw materials. If [one is] lucky, arrives earliest in the morning and can win the heart of the supervisor, the worker can get raw materials for 3000 cigarettes. This means 500 more cigarettes from the normal quota.

"The line in front of the supervisor's desk is finishing. One by one the workers go to their own work desk. Ana carried a tray with tobacco, cigarette papers, and glue ‑ ready to make them into 3000 cigarettes. Ana sings in her heart, grateful for the blessing today.

"A roller machine made of wood sits on the work desk. Solemnly, Ana sits behind the desk. Her skilful hands start to work. A piece of paper was set in the roller machine with [the] left hand. At the same time, her right hand takes tobacco which is then put on the paper. Sret! The tobacco is tidied. Then, ceklek, the handle is pulled with [the] right hand. Hap, less than 10 seconds, a rolled cigarette slides under the machine.

"That day, all workers immerse themselves in work. No chitchat, no one walks around, not even for a toilet break. ‘So that we can finish the quota', said Ana.

"There is no set break time for the workers. Their main target is to finish rolling all the raw materials. The workers set their own break time. ‘I usually rest at one o'clock, and then work again,' Ana explained. Only 30 minutes. That is the time for Ana to eat lunch, go to [the] washroom, and pray. After that, no chitchat, Ana returned to work solemnly in front of the roller machine.

"At four o'clock, all work is done. Today's quota is finished. This means Ana and her friends work 11 hours in a day. 3 hours longer that the normal working day. But, there is no over time pay here. ‘The pay is based on how much cigarettes [are] produced, not hourly,' said Ruchan, the owner."

To improve their pay, around 200 workers of PT Pakis Mas went on strike, blocked the entrance of the factory and also the road to the factory. The strike was planned to occur on the same day as the workers of PT Cakra since the demand was the same. However, the struggle at PT Pakis Mas was less successful than that of PT Cakra. The workers only got a pay increase to Rp.9200 per 1000 cigarette, still far from the official minimum wage.

In the face of the financial crisis, attacks on the workers are being intensified. However, the Indonesian workers are not taking this sitting down. They are responding to these attacks with a burning militancy. With every struggle fought, the Indonesian working class is rediscovering their militant roots and history.