As everywhere else in the world, workers and labour activists in Jakarta demonstrated on the occasion of international workers' day, the 1st of May. Several unions (of which most prominent were the FNPBI, SBSI, SBJ and Gaspermindo) and student activists (some 5.000 people) gathered at the National Monument, Monas, in Central Jakarta. Also present were a few representatives of the ILO and the American union AFL-CIO (in Indonesia called ACIL's). Of course, the state also sent some 2.000 representatives, armed with guns.
The action was organised by the "May 1st Action Committee", an organisation made up of representatives of unions, NGOs and student groups, whose aim is to promote the enhancement of working class consciousness. A few weeks earlier they had produced a pamphlet about the history of May Day, including some general demands for the Indonesian working class today, which was distributed to the unions. Actually, this pamphlet was quite radical, and gives a good idea of the rapidly developing militant mood and political level among a layer of mostly young activists. Six demands are included in the pamphlet .
The first demand is for a 100 % increase in the wages. The official minimum wage is, for the moment, about $40 per month, less than the $2 per day minimum, which is the UN indicator for poverty.
In Indonesia wage costs are only 5-7 % of total production costs. And while inflation is expected to be 9.3 % this year, the already very low wages are not expected to rise. That's why a 100% increase in all wages is crucial to provide the workers with better living standards.
Secondly, the May 1st Action Committee calls for the elimination of contract work. In several sectors, none of the workers have a permanent status. This makes it very easy for the employers to lay off workers, since contract workers are less protected by the law, which is already heavily biased towards the interests of the employers.
The third demand is about the right to organise and the abolition of military intervention. In 1999, the government finally ratified the ILO convention on the freedom to associate in Law No. 21. In reality the application of this law is more an exception than the rule. Employers still lay off workers, especially shop stewards, as they think fit, and have no qualms about calling in the help of armed men like the army, the police, or gangs of thugs. The unions and labour activists are calling for the government to take a firm stance against such violators of fundamental workers' rights.
Fourth, the pamphlet demands the closing down of the instruments of world usury, like the IMF and the World Bank. Such institutions only serve the interests of the multinationals and financial capital. Their impact on the Third World is devastating, particularly for the working class, the small peasants, and urban poor. Under the pressure of the IMF, the Wahid government is now introducing "free trade" in agriculture, and cutting back its oil subsidies, although cheap oil is elementary to daily needs such as cooking.
The fifth demand is for a 32-hour working week to solve the massive un- and underemployment. One of the main obstacles to the improvement of the workers' position, vis-a-vis the employers, is the huge amount of surplus labour and the consequent competition for jobs that flows from this. Of course this demand for a shorter working week should be linked to the demand for better wages, otherwise the reduction in official working hours will only lead to more overtime, and the result for the workers would be a zero.
Lastly, the pamphlet calls for the prosecution of the New Order (the regime of the former dictator Suharto), namely the Golkar party and the military. They call for them to face the charges of corruption, murder, kidnapping, clearing people from their land, intimidation, a policy of low wages, anti-worker laws, and so on. Also, their continuing control over politics must be removed and their accumulated wealth should be used for the welfare of the Indonesian people.
On May 1 there was a demonstration of a few thousand workers and activists at the National Monument. Before the central action at the Monas, the union FNPBI also led a demonstration against the IMF and the World Bank at the Hotel Indonesia in Central Jakarta. With banners like 'Capitalism is the root of the crisis' and 'Dissolve the IMF, World Bank and WTO', the FNPBI emerges as one of the most advanced layers of the working class.
Following on from this, labour leaders held speeches at the Monas and put forward their demands. For instance, several unions, student groups, and labour NGOs are calling on the government to make May 1 a national holiday, a day on which workers from all over Indonesia can come together to organize themselves and discuss how they can improve their situation. Employers still deny workers the right to go to the May Day rallies. Of course they realise the symbolic importance of May Day for the workers' movement, and will do everything to stop the development of a class-consciousness with its own symbols and ideology.
Another demand was that the murdered worker Marsinah be made to a 'national heroine'. Marsinah was a 25-year-old female trade unionist, who defended her fellow strike-leaders when they were arrested on the occasion of a strike for better wages. She suddenly disappeared and 3 days later she was found dead. An autopsy revealed that her attackers had thrust a blunt instrument into her vagina causing severe bleeding. Until now the case has not been resolved, but it is a commonly accepted that the military are responsible. Cases such as this show clearly which side the Indonesian military is on in the class struggle.
Dita Indah Sari (leader of the union FNPBI) and Muchtar Pakpahan (leader of the union SBSI) criticized President Abdurrahman Wahid and accused him of ignoring the plight of the workers. Using the nickname of the President, they claimed the Gus Durs government never takes the side of the workers, and the political parties only struggle for their own political interests.
Dita and Pakpahan were both jailed by former president Suharto for organizing labour protests. Suharto outlawed May Day
celebrations and free trade unions during his 32-year rule. His successor, B.J. Habibie, gave the labour movement freedom to organise in April 1999. Habibie also ratified three International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. Nevertheless, according to the unions those conventions and other fundamental workers' rights are still commonly violated, as mentioned above.
Furthermore, the state apparatus still uses article 160 of the Criminal Law to hinder the actions of workers. This infamous article gives the state the right to arrest all people who "publicly incite others to engage in illegal actions", which is broadly interpreted to include labour leaders and those activists who support independence for certain provinces such as Aceh and Irian Jaya. Therefore the unions are demanding the abolition of the so-called Anti-Subversion Law, which was adopted in the era of massive oppression of the Indonesian communist movement.
The Executive Director of the ILO, Kari Tapiola, who took part in the rally, said that working conditions in Indonesia are often classed as among the worst in the world. She called on companies and labour unions to develop a relationship based on cooperation and support, while avoiding foreign infiltration.
Actually, such an appeal appears quite odd and contradictory. The call for 'a relationship between employers and workers' based on cooperation and mutual support is itself no less than foreign infiltration, since such a relationship in reality doesn't exist.
Real labour relations are outright confrontational, although the employers prefer to call this "a partnership". There are some companies in which the workers are still too frightened to strike and demand their rights. One can hardly describe such a situation as mutual "cooperation and support". Then there are the companies in which the workers already have the courage to strike. Labour relation here are confrontational. Calling for "cooperation and support" is therefore the same as calling for something which is totally "foreign" to production relations, especially in a semi-colonial country such as Indonesia.
Of course, it is not surprising that the ILO should make such a call. The ILO is not a real labour organization, but a tripartite institution, consisting of capitalist employers, capitalist governments and representatives of the union bureaucracies (with the exception of those few left wing activists and researchers who work for the ILO).
At the same time as the action at the Monas was taking place, the SBMNI union led a demonstration at the Tanjung Priok port. Last November, the SBMNI led a 2-day strike at this important Indonesian port (see http://www.marxist.com/Asia/interview_SBMNI_401.html). Since no solution has yet been found to their problems, the SBMNI occupied the office of the Ministry of Manpower for a few hours on April 28, after which they marched on the local police office. On April 30, the SBMNI held a strike in all the companies where they have members.
On May day 10,000 transport sector workers gathered at the container terminal and marched to the City Hall to meet the mayor and present their demands: for an end to the violations of workers' rights in the port; an end to corruption, and for more efficiency in the port. The reply of the Mayor was to promise to gather all the parties concerned around the negotiating table to discuss the situation.
However, the port employers' organisation, Organda, keeps on refusing to meet the workers' demands, so that is why the SBMNI has now upped its demand and is calling for the dissolution of Organda.
Since the SBMNI did not want to isolate itself from the rest of the Indonesian labour movement at the Monas, they also put forward the general demand of May 1 as a national holiday. After their own demonstration the SBMNI were planning to join the action at the Monas, so they organised a convoy of 4 busses and 15 trucks loaded with workers heading for Central Jakarta. But police officers on motorcycles managed to encircle the trucks and block every exit. Thus the port transport workers were stopped from joining their comrades in the other unions. Again the police showed on whose side they are on in the class struggle.
In the weeks following May Day, the Indonesian workers' movement is again faced with a new challenge. It seems that all their traditional enemies are again gathering their forces to strike whatever blow they can against a young and radicalising labour movement. Several major book shops have decided to take all their left wing books off their shelves, following threats from the Islamic Youth Movement (GPI) that it would destroy all such books on May 20. The GPI is part of the Anti-Communist Coalition (AAK) (made up of 33 organisations) and it already burned many books last month, including the works of Nobel prize nominee Pramudya Ananta Toer.
In the past the Islamic party, Nahdlatul Ulama, had an important role in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of activists of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Now once again we see right wing Muslims defending the interests of the capitalist class by destroying the ideological heritage of the working class.
However, by trying to spread terror in the hearts of left activists, they will only achieve the opposite. It is true that most Indonesians are still under the effects of indoctrination of more than 30 years of anti-communist propaganda under the New Order of the dictator Suharto. But since the beginning of the Reformasi in 1998, and the lifting of repression on left wing literature under the pressure of the students' movement, the thirst for such literature has been spreading rapidly.
While the large majority of the people still steer clear of communist ideas, due to government-created ignorance about their real content, these same people really hate the violence and terrorism of the ultra-right groups. This is especially true among the workers who are often confronted with these thugs as strike breakers.
Thus after the initial fear, anti-communist actions will only attract more attention to the ideas of Marx, Engels, and their followers. And armed with these ideas, together with their everyday experience, the workers will start to realise that under capitalism living standards such as those in Europe and America are an unattainable fiction for them. Armed with a correct analysis of the concrete context in which they find themselves, they are beginning to see the real importance of May Day as a day of struggle, and not as a struggle within the confines set by capitalist competition, but as one which looks over the horizon into the epoch of socialism.