Vol 3 Fall 1999
The situation in Indonesia's labor movement the 1990s was very different from that which prevailed in the 1980s, when Indonesian workers were well controlled by the government. In order to demand their rights and to improve their working conditions, workers increasingly began to stand up and unjuk rasa (show their feelings). Of course, such actions risked intervention by the police or the military, but that did not discourage many workers from involvement in open demonstrations. During this period small-scale and often localized protests were a frequent form of labor opposition throughout Indonesia, being especially evident in Java and Sumatra. In turn, these workers' activities gained the attention of non-working class people who were actively involved in a national movement pressing for greater political freedoms that was instrumental in bringing about the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998.
The first part of this essay focuses on changes in the government's attitude, which signaled the beginning of outward labor opposition. A major development was the reformation of the Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia (SPSI), the only legal trade union in Indonesia, which encouraged the active participation of workers, especially women, in its demonstrations. The second part focuses on the Marsinah murder case, in which a woman worker was killed after organizing a demonstration. Because her death received nation-wide, even international, attention, the reasons for Marsinah's emergence as a labor symbol are a particular concern of this essay. The final section discusses the sources of support for Indonesian workers, including groups inside Indonesia as well as in the international community.
As shown a number of studies, the Indonesian government's control over workers was tight during the 1980s. The indifference towards Indonesian workers' rights was particulary evident after the installment of Sudomo, a retired general, as the Minister of Manpower in 1986, whose policies aroused increasing criticism from foreign countries. That same year, at the meeting of the International Labor Federation (ILO), representatives of the Dutch trade union movement first mentioned their concerns over the close relationship between the military and the SPSI, the only legal trade union in Indonesia. In the following year at the ILO meeting, the International Confederation for Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) again raised the issue of the violation of Articles of ILO Convention 87 and 98, which guarantee workers' freedom of association, of organization, and of collective bargaining. Besides lodging complaints with the ILO, the ICFTU's Asia Pacific Regional Organization (ICFTU-APRO) also continued working with the SPSI leaders in an effort to encourage the implementation of ILO standards. In the United States, despite a lack of support from Washington, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) - one of the country's largest labor unions - argued for the removal of Indonesia's trade preferences under the Generalized System of Preferences for three years, from 1987 to 1989. Facing actions that threatened the nations' economic well-being, the Suharto government was forced to recognize that it needed to make sufficient changes in labor control policies to impress the international community.
In 1990, Presidential Order no. 27 implemented the removal of Presidential Order no. 123 of 1963, which prohibited strikes and lockouts at the workplace. This appeared to be a major advance for workers in Indonesia as it theoretically allowed them to hold active labor demonstrations. However, Hubungan Industri Pancasila or the Pancasila Industrial Relations, which guaranteed the government's authority at the negotiating table and which encouraged employers and employees to solve problems without a strike in 1985, was still very much alive. In a statement intended to warn workers, the civilian Ministry of Manpower, Cosmas Batubara (who replaced Sudomo in 1988) said that both labor and management should respect the spirit of Pancasila so that no demonstrations would occur.
Apparently in response to international pressure, changes were also evident in SPSI, the sole government-acknowledged labor union. The SPSI attended the ICGTU-APRO's International Labor Standards Seminar in 1990 and 1991 and reconfirmed the labor rights recognized at the ILO and obligation to implement international labor standards. The SPSI then launched a self-reformation that would reflect the decisions of the seminar. A new constitution was established to respect the principle of "free and independent trade unionism and democracy," by which the organization was decentralized into 13 industrial unions. SPSI also promoted an expansion of its membership, and encouraged the state to develop social welfare programs to protect workers, such as workers' pension funds and insurance. However, labor unions outside the SPSI were still prohibited. The SPSI thus remained the single institution through which the government could control workers. The state's encouragement to expand the SPSI through the Ministry of Manpower emphasized the authoritarian nature of the union. As a result, the SPSI did not increase its membership significantly in the first half of the 1990s.
With the government making purely cosmetic gestures in the democratization of labor relations, the dissatisfaction of workers continued to grow and from 1990 they actively began engaging in strikes and demonstrations. The number of labor disputes nationwide, which was kept low by tight controls in the latter part of the 1980s, jumped from only 19 in 1989 to 61 in 1990 and, as Table 1 demonstrates, continued to grow.
Furthermore, these numbers reflect only labor disputes by the SPSI related unions; significantly, a Japanese study noted that many other labor disputes occurred at factories that did not have SPSI related unions. Most of those recorded after 1990 were at large-scale, export-oriented factories in the formal sector, especially in the apparel, textile, and shoe industries where the majority of workers were women. They were concentrated on Jabotabek, in the West Java area. In comparison to the previous decade, the size of the protests was now greater and involved more people.
Several points can be made regarding the causes of these protests. First, while workers in the cities were still attached to families back in rural villages, for many, living in the city became more permanent than previously and the demands to improve urban existence were therefore intensified. Second, although Indonesian workers were now generally better educated and thus more aware of labor legislation and their rights, the government had done little to correct highly visible discrepancies, such as the violation of the minimum wage law. Third, since workers in the formal sector were usually young, they were more willing to engage in radical protests. However, the situation described above, in which young workers who dreamt of settling down in the city had to work under unfavorable conditions, had not fundamentally altered over the previous thirty years. A more important cause of the greater incidence of worker protest may therefore have resulted from Indonesia's position in the spotlight of international attention. This meant the government could not respond with "a hardline reaction" even when it did intervene in labor protests. Workers were quick to take advantage of this situation.
One aspect of this changing situation was growing participation by some labor unions that were not themselves officially recognized. Because union activities through the SPSI were greatly restricted, workers tried to establish their own labor unions, even though these were legally banned. The Serikat Merdeka Buruh (SBM or Setiakawan), the Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia (SBSI, or the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union), etc., were established in the first half of the 1990s. In establishing these unofficial unions, workers "[challenged] the government on the question of worker rights." Although attempts to form unions outside the government authority had occurred previously, the 1990s marked the first time that the government restrained itself from unilaterally disbanding these "illegal" unions. As a result, such unions could expand their branches. Among them, the SBSI is a good example of a union that successfully expanded all over the nation, eventually claiming more than 30,000 members. Because the SBSI was established by a non-worker, a law lecturer at the University of Indonesia, Muchtar Pakpahan, the government stated that it could not be recognized as a labor union. This raises the question of middle-class attitudes, a factor which will be explored later in this essay. At this point, however, it is only necessary to note that since the SBSI had strong ties with foreign labor unions and NGOs, as did other "illegal" unions in Indonesia, the government could not forcibly disband them.
How then did workers actually become involved in the protest actions and struggles aimed at expressing their demands? In an extraordinary network of personal interaction, workers organized strikes and demonstrations at the factory level, and from there were often able to attract thousands of workers beyond the boundary of that factory. In those actions, workers used placards, posters, and protest songs to show their dissatisfaction, as in the large protest in Medan in 1994 which was planned by the SBSI-related unions and later expanded into unrest. Typical placards proclaimed "We're not work horses" and "A minimum of Rp. 3100 a day is only enough to eat."
Political demands were also evident in slogans such as "Give us the freedom to organize," and "Long live SBSI." While marching to the central areas of Medan, workers sang protest songs. Unfortunately, the songs sung on this occasion were not recorded, but we can gain a sense of their tone from the collections of protest songs, Untukmu Buruh (For Workers), which were performed by the SBSI to create solidarity among workers and to appeal to their determination for change. In "Hidup SBSI" (Long live the SBSI), a stirring male voice sings with a children's chorus, "Let's gather in one group. We struggle together. Don't go back. Don't withdraw . . . ." Both men and women sing in "Unjuk Rasa" (Show your feeling), "We have complete freedom to unite. We demand a wage raise. We demand an end to lay-offs . . . ."
The participation of women in these workers' protest actions, even as leaders, was quite common. As women workers became opposition leaders, they took the risk of being arrested or kidnapped by the police or the military. While being interrogated, such arrested workers were often harassed and tortured. The workers who went through such interrogations reported that they were badly beaten, kicked, and even burnt. One of the above-mentioned SPSI songs even alleged that besides physical abuse, some inmates were forced to eat their own excrement ["Engkau paksa angar/Teman minum air seni. . . memaksa makan tinja dan kecoa."] Such harassment and torture could happen to women workers as well. Moreover, in the case of women workers, sexual abuse and threat of rape were often added to this already terrifying mix. A woman worker kidnapped by intelligence agents after organizing a strike in Semarang in 1995 was threatened with rape if she continued her involvement with labor protest. Another woman arrested in Tangerang in 1994 was sexually abused and threatened with rape unless she divulged the names of other activists.
Even when workers showed their solidarity by participating in protests, however, strikes and demonstrations usually ended with the arrests of those who organized them. Although, as noted earlier, government intervention had lessened in comparison with earlier times, neither government officers nor management considered workers' demands. With the leaders removed, the local military could more easily force the rest of the workers to break up and return to work. In the case of large protests, security forces or the anti-riot police often moved in to break up crowds of workers by force. During such confrontations, strikers were injured. Afterward, they often faced forced dismissals from their jobs as a warning to others. Despite these risks and difficulties, a significant number of workers remained adamant and undiscouraged, maintaining the struggle to achieve their demands.
Another unique expression of labor protest during this period was evident in a number of workers' theaters established with the help of NGOs. From the late 1980s members of these NGOs, whose roots lay in a middle-class student critique of the government that had begun to surface as early as the 1970s, began approaching workers in order to increase democracy and to seek more equal distribution of wealth. Through its activities with workers, the NGOs realized the efficiency of role-playing techniques as a means of educating workers and building solidarity and confidence among them. Responding to increased workers' interest in the role-playing workshop, the first workers' theater, Teater Buruh Indonesia (TBI, the Indonesian Workers' Theater), was founded in 1989 with support from Saluran Informasi Sosial dan Bimbingan Hukum (Yayasan Sisbikum, the Foundation for the Channeling of Information and Legal Guidance). Yayasan Sisbikum considered the TBI to be "the theater by workers, about workers, and for workers" in the Jakarta area. Its purpose was to provide a place for workers to exchange information about their problems. The TBI created plays from workers' experiences to reflect their voices, but these were often based on the experience of women because it was felt that they faced more severe conditions at work than men. The TBI production style encouraged the audience, namely workers, to participate in singing songs and dancing at the end of the performance, which meant that the artistic value of the play was secondary to audience involvement.
Teater Aneka Buruh (Teater ABU, All Workers Theater), the second workers' theater, was established in 1992 with help from Yayasan Perempuan Mardika (The Independent Women's Foundation). Teater ABU was directed by a leading actress in an avant-garde theater troupe, and thus was more artistically-oriented than TBI. Teater ABU aimed to inform society as well as workers about labor problems, especially the problems of women workers, such as dismissal of pregnant workers and sexual harassment at work. While the majority of its audience was workers, with staging at well-known urban theaters, Teater ABU also received attention from the art community.
Regardless of the difference in their styles, both theaters were successful in providing workers in the Jakarta area with a new means by which they could perceive and recognize their own problems. Because of news coverage of these theaters and because of reports spread by word of mouth, their influence among workers was growing. However, because their implicit assertions, complaints, and accusations were mediated through the plays, and because they did not directly appeal to factory management or to the government, theater involvement meant that until 1994 workers and their allies could evade the intervention of authorities and obtain performance permits. By welcoming them as participants in performance activities, this new theater helped workers to face their situation and fostered their willingness to become involved in open protest.
Either through direct labor protests, which caught the attention of the military, or through workers' theaters, which indirectly created commitment to those protests, workers became increasingly willing to clamor openly for their rights, often refusing to retreat during confrontations with the military even when their lives were threatened. Their enthusiasm for change was stimulated and enhanced, not weakened, by the Marsinah case of May 1993.
Marsinah was a 25 year-old female employee of the PT Catur Putra Surya which manufactured watches in Sidoarjo, East Java. She was a representative of the labor union affiliated with the SPSI and worked along with other representatives of workers to organize a strike on May 3, 1993, after the company failed to comply with the Governor's order to raise the minimum wage from 1750 rupiah to 2250 rupiah a day. When workers still refused to return to work the next day, their representatives, including Marsinah, succeeded in extracting an agreement from the management to grant the new wage. On May 5, 13 workers' representatives (all men and not including Marsinah), were taken to the local military office and forced to sign letters of resignation. Worried about the welfare of these representatives, Marsinah stopped by the local military office on the way back to her home. After learning that her colleagues had already been released, she visited two of them. Her movements after leaving her friends' house are unknown, but on May 8, she was found dead in a hut next to a rice field in Wilangan village, more than 200 kilometers away from the factory. Her body clearly showed that she had been tortured, and she had been raped with a blunt instrument before being killed.
The mass media was initially reluctant to discuss the case, but the Surabaya Post broke this silence on May 24, when it referred to the sloppy investigation in which there had been no effort to locate evidence regarding the perpetrators of the crime, and when not even an autopsy had been ordered. Following this, Marsinah's murder was quickly picked up by most newspapers in Java and coverage then spread throughout Indonesia. Although television, under strict government control, avoided mentioning the case, articles in newspapers were successful in gaining readers' attention nationwide. The reasons for the new interest in Marsinah's case are not completely clear, but presumably it was due to the realization of its newsworthy nature, the potential appeal to the public, and the fact that journalists were pushing the limits of a freer press environment. Along with journalists' commentaries, students and NGOs in East Java formed groups or demonstrated to show their concern over Marsinah's death. In June, student groups at Jember Central University held a demonstration to mark the fortieth day after Marsinah's death. Another group, Aksi Doa Solidaritas Untuk Marsinah, took their concerns to the Surabaya regional police office in July. Twenty-seven NGOs joined with a human rights groups in Surabaya to form Komite Solidaritas Untuk Marisinah and made up a team to investigate the facts regarding her death. Popular attention, from working class to middle class, was riveted by the progress of these investigations.
When the case was given top priority and involved the state intelligence agency, the owner and eight management members from the factory were arrested and charged with involvement in Marsinah's death. During the trial, however, all of them claimed that they had been tortured and forced to admit their involvement in the case. As a result, suspicions about the fairness of the investigation, and even rumors of a military involvement in the disappearance and murder of Marsinah, began to grow. In April 1994, the government's National Human Rights Commission itself questioned the treatment of defendants by the police after they were arrested and referred to the existence of other people who really killed Marsinah.
Finally, in May 1995, the nine defendants were released. However, although two other special investigation teams were formed, the real perpetrators have not yet been arrested. Indonesians generally still have a strong interest in this case. A connection between the military and Marsinah's death is still rumored, and many people would like the accusations about a conspiracy brought into the open; they are pressing for a disclosure of all the details and facts relating to the death of this factory worker.
How could an unknown worker's death catch the attention of so many people? The Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET) pointed out that the murder of Marsinah was the first case of the premeditated killing of a worker in Indonesia. Many workers had died previously during confrontations with the military in its efforts to stop labor opposition, but Marsinah was the first worker intentionally killed outside a specific conflict situation. Even so, why have so many people, from workers to journalists to students, rallied around an unknown labor activist's death, and why does her death continue to arouse popular emotion? What aspect of this incident moved people so greatly?
In an article about Marsinah included in the publication of Ratna Sarumpaet's play, Marsinah: Nyanyian Dari Bawah Tanah (Marsinah: Songs from the Underworld), Goenawan Muhamad analyzed the Indonesian reaction to the Marsinah case. In his view, most Indonesians acquainted with the case feel that the reasons Marsinah was killed are more important than who killed her. There is an underlying perception that Indonesian society is established in such a way that only those who already have power and money can be rich, even if this involves unethical paths, while the rest of the people, mostly workers, have to accept hard lives and unrelenting poverty. Among such workers, Marsinah was symbolic of the most disadvantaged because female workers generally work under more adverse employment conditions than most male workers. Nevertheless, in order to fight against the unfair social system and to change the fate of herself and her fellows, Marsinah stood up and spoke out; as a result, she was killed. Goenawan further emphasized that Marsinah died because of the ideology of treating lower class workers and women as less significant than people from higher socio-economic positions, and of regarding women as less important than men. This attitude allowed the murderers to think that the discovery of an unnamed woman worker's body would result in little more than a brief mention in a small corner of the local newspaper. That is why they felt they could torture, rape and discard her with impunity.
Certain surprising aspects of Marsinah's case were also mentioned in Goenawan's article. Marsinah lived in East Java. If she had lived in the Jakarta area, she might have been in the midst of workers' strikes and demonstrations, which had occurred frequently since 1990, and she might have been involved in daily discussions of workers' rights and the minimum wage. However, Marsinah was far away from this clamoring and debate. Even so, popular perception saw her as a people's heroine - a poor young girl who had come to be aware of her fundamental human rights, and who had stood up and made full use of her leadership abilities in the pursuit of a better life for herself and her fellows.
In short, the Marsinah case had a great impact on many people because it enabled them to perceive the extent to which human rights had been set aside by the Indonesian government. Faced with a situation in which workers' demands for change were suppressed, ordinary people could discern in the death of Marsinah a threat against themselves - a threat that went beyond the boundaries of social class. Nor was this feeling apparent only among workers whose situation was similar to that of Marsinah; student activists and journalists, who have themselves frequently faced threats from those in power, also persisted in demanding a fair investigation of this case. But their reaction was motivated by more than just horror, for Marsinah represented an inspirational figure. If one poor young woman could stand up against authority, everyone could participate in actions to improve the situation of the country. Marsinah therefore has become the symbol of struggle for many people who seek greater equity in Indonesian society. It is for these reasons that Marsinah is remembered, and why, years after her death, there are still widespread demands for a resolution of the case and punishment for her murders.
In addition to showing their concern for her through demonstrations, gatherings, and newspaper articles, workers and artists picked up Marsinah, the symbol of the workers' struggle, in art exhibitions, paintings, songs, and plays, which were intended to appeal to large numbers of people. For example, the exhibition, "Pameran Untuk Marsinah" (The Exhibition for Marsinah), planned for the 100-day Islamic ceremony after her death, was to be held at the Surabaya Arts Center in August 1993. It was felt that this occasion would provide an opportunity to make a call for social justice. The exhibition planner was the artist Moelyono, famous for his "consciousness-raising art," which encourages rural, frequently illiterate, people to consider their situation rather than passively accepting government decisions. Since it was located in a formal performance space, however, the target of this exhibition seemed to have been a middle-class audience rather than workers. It may have been because of this targeted audience that the exhibition was cancelled by order of the local military just before its opening; even any photographing of the exhibit was declared illegal. At the Center, Moelyono's installation art, "Interrogation Scene," was waiting for the audience, with its human figures made of rice straw placed in front of a wall of black and white slab, and with white gloves hanging from the ceiling. This art was inspired by the last days of Marsinah's life and symbolized the vulnerability of human life (straw) under the national authority (white gloves) and the submission to authority, which can be both good and evil (the white and black wall). By placing the audience into a position of "interrogators" of his work, Moelyono intended them to realize that they too could potentially take on the role of a threatening authoritative power. Although the people gathered for the opening unfortunately could not see the work, they would certainly have discussed and debated the questions provoked by the exhibition.
During the same year, Kartika Affandi, daughter of the father of modern Indonesian art, Affandi, completed her new work, "Srikandi." Srikandi is a strong female character from the wayang, the traditional shadow play, and in Kartika's work, Srikandi stands up to face the eyes spying on her as if she were showing her determination to fight back against those spying eyes. It is well known that Kartika often selects women as the theme of her paintings and that she sometimes includes political messages in her works. Although unstated, there is probably an intentional connection between the Srikandi and Marsinah. Kartika's message seems to be that an Indonesian woman should not be passive but be brave in opposing the obstacles confronting her.
Marsinah also became the focus of workers' songs. TBI produced the cassette Marsinah: Bersatulah Buruh Indonesia (Marsinah: Indonesian Workers Unite) at the beginning of 1994. All the songs were sung by women, and the focus of this collection was specifically women workers. The first song, "Marsinah," presents Marsinah as the symbol of opposition. The lyrics describe her tortures, and a woman representative sings about workers' determination to follow her wishes and continue the struggle for justice. In "Buruh Perempuan" (Women Workers), the message is that women workers should appeal against suffering in their work and in their lives. Through the entire recording, workers criticize the empty words of government officials' and call for workers' solidarity in the pursuit of democracy. So effective was this recording that in July 1994 the national commander of the police claimed that the TBI songs "exploited" Marsinah's death and put a stop to the circulation of the cassette. However, as this censorship did not come into force until several months after the release of the cassette, it was generally ineffective.
The SBSI released the song "Surat Cinta Untuk Marsinah" (Love Letter for Marsinah) in the cassette Untukmu Buruh. Like the TBI's song, the minor-key male voices of this cassette accuse the courts of injustice and praise Marsinah as one who sacrificed herself for the workers in Indonesia. This SBSI version escaped censorship entirely. In both the TBI and the SBSI recordings, Marsinah's spirit was handed down to millions of her fellows throughout the country by means of her integration into workers' songs.
Marsinah's story was also incorporated and elaborated into plays. Ratna Sarumpaet, a female playwright, wrote Marsinah: Nyanyian Dari Bawah Tanah (Marsinah: Song from the Underworld) in 1994. Ratna supported the Teater ABU because she felt that as an artist from the middle-class art community, she could do the most for workers through plays in which her literary skills could be used most effectively. In regard to the Marsinah case, she commented, "When a woman dares to speak, there seems to be a great force or desire to silence her." In this play Ratna linked gender issues with the suffering of the poor people, and by addressing the particular concerns of workers,' the play appealed to a much wider audience. Staged in guerilla style in several big cities in Java in 1994, it successfully attracted a middle-class audience, but because of the pressure applied to her sponsor, it was impossible for Ratna to mount any productions after early 1995. Later, she created another play, "Marsinah Menggugat" (Marsinah Accuses) in 1997, and this time, the performance of the play was banned by the police.
TBI also created the play "Senandung Terpuruk Dari Barik Tembok Pabrik" (Song Buried Behind the Factory Wall) in which the name of the main character "Marsih" hinted at Marsinah. It was scheduled to be staged in May 1995 at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Jakarta, Indonesia's most famous performing art center. It was the TBI's first attempt to stage their play at such a venue in an effort to cultivate new audiences among the middle class. Nevertheless, claiming that the play might disturb national unity, the head of the Jakarta Regional Government's Socio-Political Directorate banned the performance. As a result, it was difficult for the group to obtain a permit to stage the following performance at their home theater for a worker audience, and further attempts to produce the same play at other places were banned. Another workers' theater, Sanggar Pabrik, sponsored by the SBSI, intended to stage "Surat Cinta Bagi Marsinah di Sorga" (Love Letter to Marsinah in Heaven) in September 1995 as the first performance, but in this case the permit also was refused.
In exhibitions, paintings, songs, and plays, Marsinah's desire and bravery were thus remembered and shared, especially among Javanese. At the same time, through Marsinah as the symbol of struggle, artists and workers' theater were able not only to empathize with the suffering of workers, especially that of women, but also to present their case in a compelling manner to new and often middle-class, educated audiences. Marsinah can thus be seen as a kind of bridge connecting both women's and men's issues and linking workers to members of the middle-class, who were also becoming more sympathetic to the problem of social inequities in Indonesia and to demands for political and social change.
This kind of support for the labor movement had already been evident in the support offered to the workers' theaters at the time of their inception. NGOs offered the workers a place to study their rights, and this finally took shape as two major theaters: TBI and Teater ABU. Those theaters, as already suggested, contributed to the building of solidarity among workers and the raising of consciousness of labor problems among middle-class audiences.
After the Marsinah case in 1993, the international community's concern about the flagrant violations of the rights of Indonesian workers intensified. One obvious example of this was the notice from the U.S. governmental committee on the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) to the Indonesian government in June 1993. Disturbed about the violations of workers' rights and of labor laws in Indonesia, the committee warned that the U.S. government would remove the GSP for Indonesia unless the Indonesian government improved the situation by February 1994. Similar measures included petitions from NGOs and labor unions, such as Asia Watch, International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, and the AFL-CIO. A visit to Indonesia by U.S. Trade Representatives to examine the situation apparently allayed American sensibilities, for even though no improvement in workers' rights or in working conditions was observed, the GSP for Indonesia was not removed. The country had again succeeded in escaping potentially serious economic damage.
An unfortunate result of the US decision was that the Indonesian government once again felt relatively free to intervene to restrict workers' protests. It was during this period that the above-mentioned bans on artistic activities regarding Marsinah and the forceful suppression of large demonstrations in Medan (the Medan Unrest) occurred. Ironically, however, this heightened surveillance of workers encouraged many members of the middle class to realize that respecting workers and their rights was directly related to the achievement of the enhanced political freedoms they desired. The workers also realized the importance of an alliance beyond their social class, and so a movement toward alliance began.
The formation of the coalition Pusat Perjuangan Buruh Indonesia (PPBI) in 1994 is an example of middle-class activists' efforts to cooperate with the workers. The General Secretary of the PPBI, Dita Sari, is a former student activist from Solidaritas Mahasiswa Indonesia untuk Demokrasi (SMID, Indonesian Students Solidarity for Democracy). She recalled her first participation in the 1992 demonstration by the SMID during which she realized that issues raised there must have touched a wide range of Indonesians. When the PPBI was founded as part of an alliance including the SMID, the Serikat Tani National (the National Peasants Union), and the Jaringan Kesenian Rakyat (the People's Artists Network), she therefore decided to take the office of General Secretary. The main activity of the PPBI was to lead united strikes, allowing workers to demand more than just better wages and to increase their effectiveness by involving students if management did not accept workers' demands after several days of strikes. Dita Sari claimed that, through the alliance with students, protest actions could clearly demonstrate the split between "the oppressors and the oppressed" in Indonesian society.
The PPBI also emphasized the need to address the problems of women workers. The general program and the program of demands adopted at the first congress stressed that women were placed under the worst working conditions. The removal of all discrimination against women workers and an improvement in their working conditions were clearly stated as a principal goal of the PPBI. In fact, the end of unequal pay between men and women workers was demanded at the strike in Semarang just two days after the formation of the PPBI. Aided by Dita Sari's view that a patriarchic society encouraged the suffering of women workers, active women workers were welcomed and integrated into the PPBI activities, which sought real change for women. Thus PPBI's attitudes may also have helped foster a view that treating women as equals of men should be a part of a larger program of social and political change.
In combination with the PPBI, the SBSI made efforts to ally with middle-class activists. In July 1996, the Chairperson of the SBSI, Muchtar Pakpahan, formed an alliance with student activists and Megawati Sukarnoputri, an opponent political leader of Indonesia, in order to protest the ban on political rallies. Recognizing the influence of those powerful figures on the general election in 1997 and the Presidential election in 1998, security forces raided Megawati's campaign headquarters, and Pakpahan, together with ten student activists, was arrested for subversion. This episode was only one aspect of an extremely complex situation in which Pakpahan's jail sentence forced the SBSI to continue its struggle without its leader until May 1998, when he was released. More particularly, the arrest of Pakpahan attracted even greater international attention to the Indonesian situation.
Reaction to the arrest of Pakpahan among NGOs and labor unions outside Indonesia was heated, and the AFL-CIO took strong steps to apply more pressure to the Indonesian government. First, they appealed to the Clinton Administration to reexamine the country's commercial relations with Indonesia. They asked that all development and investment programs by U.S. government agencies be postponed until all jailed worker activists were released and until workers' rights were respected. Although the requests from the AFL-CIO were not realized, concern at the arrest of Pakpahan was expressed in the Human Rights Report 1996 by the U.S. government. Determined to obtain help from as many avenues as possible, the AFL-CIO also made its plea to other respected international organizations such as the ICFTU and international human rights organizations. The AFL-CIO awarded the 1997 George Meany Human Rights Award to Pakpahan although Pakpahan himself could not visit America to receive it.
Ratna Sarumapaet, whose plays about Marsinah were banned in Indonesia, also received support from foreign NGOs and academic groups. Her play "Marsinah: Nyanyian Dari Bawah Tanah" was translated into English and into German and has been presented at university seminars and through NGOs in Australia, Germany, and the U.S. In this way, it succeeded in attracting attention to Ratna's cause and to the situation of Indonesian women workers. In 1997 "Marsinah" won the award for "plays dealing with political and humanitarian issues" at the 4th International Women Playwright Conference in Ireland, thus helping to raise international concern about the struggle for workers' rights in Indonesia, especially as they concerned women.
The intervention in the movement for democracy by the government continued even after the general election in 1997 and the presidential election in 1998. Nevertheless, with international support for the workers and with the movement playing a watch-dog role, the ties between workers and middle-class activists never weakened. Their joint struggles elevated into an active search for a new leader of the country and finally helped end the Suharto regime in May 1998. This event represented the first possibility for real change in Indonesia in over thirty years.
What did workers, especially women workers, win in terms of improving their lives through their struggles in this period? In order to participate in protest activities, workers were taking risks: they faced danger in confrontations with the police or the military, and were subject to dismissal from their factory jobs. Sadly, despite these great risks and the sacrifice of so many individuals, the fruit of the labor struggles of the 1990s was actually small.
With regard to the minimum wage, the most common focus of workers' attention in protest activities, the Ministry of Manpower announced a plan to raise the minimum wage steadily from 1993 to 1998 so that it equal the minimum living needs in 1998. In 1996, the government considered that most factory workers were regular but daily-status employees and ordered employers to pay them for 30 days each month. As well as the pressure from international community, this action may have been in response to a shift in public opinion inside Indonesia, which had previously demonstrated little interest in workers' concerns and was said to be the reason businesses were able to ignore minimum wage laws so flagrantly. The growth of a larger, better educated and more prosperous middle class, however, meant that views among that group were changing, creating an atmosphere supportive of strikes, particularly those protesting minimum wage violations.
On the other hand, advances with regard to other demands were not as successful. Improvements in working conditions, such as the reduction of long working hours and the observance of safety regulations, remained among the unachieved goals. Nor was there any attempt to address the specific difficulties of women workers. There was no change in the enforcement of maternity and menstruation leave, and no evidence of efforts to counter discrimination at work, such as a sexual division of labor, which creates lower wages for women.
Because of the Marsinah case, the struggles of women workers as well as their sub-standard working conditions attracted the attention of their male colleagues and the middle class and stressed the need for greater solidarity between various groups. But because of the subsequent alliance between the workers and the middle class, the goal of the movement tended to be directed less towards gaining improvements in the lives of workers and more towards the mutual goal of the various social classes - that is, the achievement of democracy. In consequence, real changes have yet to be achieved for women workers in Indonesia.
Under international scrutiny, which forced the government to check its harsh oppression, Indonesian workers in the 1990s finally obtained the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction and make demands in the form of strikes and demonstrations. Women workers, who were culturally restrained from resisting male authority and whose demands had not been previously addressed through labor unions, could now participate in protest actions beside their male colleagues. It was not even unusual in the 1990s for women workers, like Marsinah, to be the leaders in the labor opposition movement.
Marsinah was murdered, but through her death, the sufferings of workers, especially women workers, and their efforts to bring about change were brought to the attention of the middle class, many of whom began to realize that the workers' goals were inextricably bound up with their own desire for democracy. An alliance between workers and middle-class activists was formed, and with the added support from NGOs and labor unions based in other countries, the movement toward greater political freedoms was gradually expanded.
Nevertheless, the rewards that workers gained through labor opposition in the 1990s were generally limited to small increases in the minimum wages, and even this gain has been eroded in the current economic crisis. Demands from women workers for improvements in their situation have not yet been met. But it could be argued that ordinary working women are gaining in experience and are learning that they can collectively exert some influence on events. In effect, with their involvement in a national movement that replaced the leader of the country, they are completing an apprenticeship. While little is certain about Indonesia's economic future, one can foresee a prolonged continuation of struggle by women workers as they work to capitalize on the knowledge and experiences of the past.
1 This essay is based on a chapter in my thesis submitted to the University of Hawai'i in partial fulfillment for the degree of Master of Arts. I would like to express my appreciation to my thesis committee, especially to Professor Barbara W. Andaya, the chairperson, for her insightful suggestions and warm guidance.
2 See further R. Lambert, Authoritarian State Unionism in New Order Indonesia, Asia Research Center on Social Political and Economic Change, Working Paper No. 25 (Murdoch: Murdoch University, 1993).
3 T. Harada, "Saiyuusen Kadai no Koyoukikai Soushutsu" (Indonesia/Most Prior Subject of Employment Opportunities Development), in Nihon Roudoukenkyu Zasshi 33, no.2/3 (February 1 1991): 41-48. Text in Japanese.
4 Lambert, 8.
5 Departmen Tenaga Kerja R. I., Perencanaan and Pengerbangan Tenaga Kerja, Perencanaan daProfil Sumber Daya Manusia Indonesia: the Human Resources Profile in Indonesia (Jakarta: Pusat Perencanaan and Informasi Tenaga Kerja, 1998), 55.
6 K. Matsui, "90nendai Indonesia no rodoshijyo to rodomondai" (Labor Market and Disputes in Contemporary Indonesia), Ajia Torendo, 66, 1994-II (1994): 54-75.
7 Jabotabek is an amalgam of the name of the cities in the region: Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang, and Bekasi.
8 See C. Manning, "Structural Change and Industrial Relations During the Suharto Period: An Approaching Crisis?" Bulletin of Indonesian Economic Studies 29, no. 2 (1993): 59-95, and also V. Hadiz, "The Political Significance of Recent Working Class Action in Indonesia" (1992), unpublished paper cited in Lambert.
9 The SBM was established in 1990. However, due to the difference in strategy and administration of finance among leaders, it broke up in 1991. Some members became involved in the SBSI, established in 1993.
10 Lambert, 21, quoting from the speech by Princen, the founder of SBM.
11 K. Matsui.
12 For a more detailed record of Medan Unrest, see C. K. Jana (undated), "The 1994 medan unrest," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/dedan.htm, (undated). in Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor (ASIET), The Fight for Workers' Rights in Indonesia, www.peg,apc.org/~asiet/welcome.htm?.
13 C. K. Jana.
14 C. K. Jana
15 Untukmu Buruh: Lagu-lagu Perjuangan Buruh (Jakarta: LKK Production, 1995). A collection of the SBSI protest songs, some of which were sung by the chairperson of the SBSI, Muchtar Pakpahan.
16 My translation. The original text reads: "Mari bersatu bersama kami. Kita berjuang bersama sama. . . Janganlah mundur. Janganlah surut . . . ." from "Hidup SBSI" in Untukmu Buruh:
17 My translation. The original text reads: "Kami tuntas bebas berserikat. Kami tuntut upah naik. Kami tuntut stop PHK (pemberhentian hubungan kerja). . . ." from "Untuk Rasa" in Untukmu Buruh.
18 "October 1994, new trade union, PPBI is born," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/ppbibornhtm.
19 Untukmu Buruh.
20 "October 1994, new trade union, PPBI is born," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/ppbibornhtm.
21 In case of the Medan unrest, soon after the representatives of the workers left the Governor's office, the anti-riot force moved in with tear gas and riot batons. The battle between this force and the workers developed into large-scale civil unrest, in which not only many workers, including women, were injured but also an ethnic Chinese businessman was killed. See further, C. K. Jana.
22 More than 300 workers were dismissed after the strike in March 1994, and the reinstatement was one of the demands raised in the Medan Unrest (C. K. Jana). In the Marsinah case, Marsinah's co-workers were forced by the local military to sign the resignation letter (see B. Waters, "the Marsinah murder," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/marsinah.htm.
23 M.H. Bodden, "Workers' Theatre and Theatre About Workers in 1990s Indonesia," in Review of Indonesian and Malayan Affairs 31, no.1 (June 1997): 37-78.
24 Bodden, 42.
25 Bodden, 42.
26 For more discussion about aesthetic and workers' theaters, see Bodden.
27 Bodden. As discussed in the following section, when these theaters gained the support of other social classes, and especially when TBI picked up Marsinah's story as the theme of dramatic performances, the government started intervening. By this time, however, TBI had become a very popular theater that could sell more than 1,000 tickets per performance.
28 Waters, "The Marsinah Murder." This on-line article is an update of the original, which appeared in Inside Indonesia, 36 (1993).
29 It will be remembered that the government crackdown came in 1994, with the closing of the outspoken journals Tempo and Detik
30 "Violence: the military, violence and the workers' movement," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/abri.htm.
31 M. Goenawan, "Marsinah," in Ratna Sarumpaet, Marsinah Nyanyian Dari Bawah Tanah (Yogyakarta: Yayasan Bentang Budaya, 1997). Goenawan's article was originally presented in Jakarta in December 1993 as a speech in honor of Marsinah.
32 A. Wright, "Resistance in the Visual Field: Activist Art in Indonesia in the 1990s," in Facets of Power and its Limitations: Political Culture in Southeast Asia, ed. I. Trankell and L. Summers (Uppsala: Department of Anthropology, Uppsala University, 1998).
33 Wright, 119.
34 Wright, 118. "Interrogation Scene" was left in the photograph, which was taken before the order of the cancellation. Wright's essay gives a detailed analysis of the work.
35 See D. Dysart and Hi. Fink, H., eds., Asian Women Artists. (Sydney: Craftsman House, 1996).
36 Marsinah: Bersatulah Buruh Indonesia: 10 Lagu Terbaru, (Jakarta: Yayasan SISBIKUM and TeaterBuruh Indonesia, 1994).
37 Bodden, 64.
38 Untukmu Buruh.
40 "Playwright Ratna Sarumpaet Summoned for Police Questioning in Indonesia" (undated), www.en.com/users/heroine.Ratna.html (unpaged).
41 ISAI, Ratna Sarumpaet's Marisinah: News Account of a Performance Banned by Police, www.en.com/users/heroine/Marsinah.html (1998, April 3).
42 Since the head of the Jakarta regional Government's Socio-Political directorate, who banned TBI's performance at TIM, insisted on renaming the theater and rewriting the play, the TBI sued him in the special courts. The lawsuit ruled against the TBI but in the process attracted the attention of the middle-class. For detailed information, see Bodden.
43 "How U.S. Officials View the Matter" and "What Does America Demand of Indonesia?" in Economic & Business Review Indonesia, 72 (1993): 9; 10-14.
44 "Organizing in Indonesia: an interview with Dita Sari, PPBI," www.peg.apc.org/~stan/asiet/doss1/ditasari.htm (undated), in: ASIET, The Fight for Workers' Rights in Indonesia, www.peg.apc.org/~asiet/welcome/htm? This article is based on the interview that took place when Dita Sari visited Australia in December 1994 and in March 1995 in order to attend conferences on the international workers movement and the West Australian International Women's Day rally.
45 "Organizing in Indonesia," unpaged.
46 "Organizing in Indonesia," unpaged.
47 M. Shari, Trial of Labor Leader: a Leading Critic of Indonesia's President Suharto Finds Himself a Victim of Intense Judicial Pressure, http://cgi.pathfinder.com/time/magazine/1997/int/ 970210/asia/trials_of_a.htm 149, no. 6 (February 10 1997).
48 This was the second time that Pakpahan was arrested. He was first arrested in 1994 for organizing the Medan unrest although he was in Java and was not involved in the demonstration and the subsequent unrest. He was sentenced three years in jail but was released after serving nine months.
49 AFL-CIO, AFL-CIO Executive Council Feb. 19, 1997. Statement: Indonesia, http//www.aflcio.org./estatements/indonesi.htm (1997).
50 "Worker Rights" (1996) in Indonesia: Human Rights Report 1990, Section 6, Special Briefing on 1996 Annual Report on Human Rights Practices, by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Under Secretary for Global Affairs Tim Wirth, and Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, John Shattuk. (Washington: D.C., Jan. 1997).
51 Ratna Sarumpaet, Marsinah: Nyanyian Dari Bawah Tanah, (Yogyakarta: Yayasan Bentang Budaya, 1997).
52 "Minimum Wage Hike Signals Labor Complexity, " in Economic & Business Review Indonesia 197 (1996), 19-20.
53 As fn. 50.
54 R. Hindryati, "Business Values Cause Labor Market," Indonesia Business Weekly 1, no.36 (1993), 6-7.