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Military intervention in labour disputes

Asian Food Worker 28 - April-September 1998

There can be no doubt that the dramatic changes which have taken place since student-led protests forced Suharto's resignation in May have seen the emergence of a new democratic space in Indonesian society. Marking the beginning of the era of Reformasi or reformation', the challenge since Suharto's resignation has been to consolidate these democratic gains by bringing an end to the Suharto regime in total, not just his Presidency.

But this challenge is proving to be an immense task, with corruption, collusion and nepotism continuing to shape the actions of political elites, heads of state-owned corporations and leaders of state-controlled mass organisations as they rush to preserve their own privileges and power. In doing so they have appropriated the language of Reformasi to legitimate their hold on power, while using a combination of administrative, legal, political, and military forms of repression against those who challenge them. In this sense the old Suharto regime is still intact, and real democratic reform is under threat of a violent reversal. This is most evident in the role of the military, where military involvement in politics and in the everyday lives of ordinary people continues. In particular the military continues to be involved in labour issues, intervening in labour disputes to repress workers who have dared to assert their collective rights.

Barely two weeks into this new era of Reformasi, Lasimo, a worker at the PT. Maspion electrical goods factory in Sidoarjo, East Java, was killed by the military when a mass strike was violently repressed. The five-day strike involving 25 000 workers from all five plants at PT. Maspion began on June 2, when the workers' 22 demands concerning wages, allowances, working conditions and trade union rights were ignored by the management. On June 5, more than 7000 workers from PT. Maspion I marched to the East Java Regional Council to present their demands. Another 5000 workers who were still inside the factory tried to join the strike, but were prevented by the military. While they were attempting to overcome the military blockade, more than 13000 workers from three other Maspion factories joined them. When hundreds of workers finally broke free of the blockade soldiers and military police beat them with guns and sticks. As a result, 15 workers were seriously injured, including Lasimo, who was severely beaten in the stomach with a gun. He was immediately taken to the hospital by his fellow workers, but died three days later.

Lasimo's death reveals the divide between the rhetoric and the reality of Reformasi. The kind of military repression which led to his death is widespread, and rather constituting a remnant of the old regime, it is increasingly part of the new' one. Recent cases of this kind of repression include the following:

On June 21, hundreds of soldiers, supported by tanks, rocket launchers, armed motor-cycle troops, blockaded the University of Indonesia to stop a rally of factory workers and students. More than 10,000 workers were planning to join the protest in an action organised by the Workers' Committee for Reformation Action (KOBAR). The military was deployed all over the Jabotabek region to prevent workers from reaching the campus. Many workers were confronted by soldiers and police when they attempted to leave their factories, while others were stopped from boarding buses hired to take them to the rally.

On June 24, in response to a workers' rally planned by the independent trade union federation, SBSI, the military commander of Jakarta, Major-General Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin, deployed 25,000 troops and announced that labour protests and strikes would be severely repressed: "Anyone who wishes to disrupt security will confront my troops. I have given them orders to warn the protesters first and then cripple them if they have to."

Less than a week later, on June 30, the military violently repressed a strike by workers at a metal factory in Bekasi, PT. Gunung Garuda Cibitung. As the workers rallied to demand decent wages and an end to lay-offs, soldiers opened fire at close range with rubber bullets. Dozens of workers were seriously injured, leaving 23 hospitalised. The military and police then arrested 104 workers for interrogation. It was reported that one of the workers who was hospitalised later died.

In Bandung, more than 100 workers at Hotel Horizon, including 19 workers from Okoh Japanese Restaurant Hotel Horizon, went on strike from July 17 to July 23 to demand the right to bargain collectively and to stop increasing casualisation. Soldiers deployed by the District Military Commander intervened to break up the strike, intimidating the strike organisers.

On July 27, more than 1000 workers went on strike at PT. HJ & Ever Cortex Indonesia in Balaraja, Tangerang, over the dismissal of six workers who represented them in an earlier strike action in April. A woman worker who was one of the leaders of the April strike, Wiwin Adichandra, had been severely beaten by the Korean manager, Kuen Young Lee. Soldiers from the Sub-District Military Command and officers from the Sector Police intervened and stopped the strike. Rather than questioning the Korean manager, the police and military officers detained and interrogated Wiwin and ten other workers.

On August 3, 1800 workers from PT Deli Food and PT Mayora Indah in Jatiuwung, Tangerang, staged a two-day strike to oppose mass lay-offs and demanded wages above the legal minimum to cope with rapidly rising living costs. The military intervened to stop the strike, harassing and interrogating seven workers.

At Coca Suki Restaurant in Surabaya, East Java, the 31 restaurant workers formed an independent union and issued their demands on August 3, including payment of the legal minimum wage, no more unfair wage deductions and fines, payment for overtime work, and end to the abusive behaviour of the manager. They also expressed their solidarity for the 300 workers at Coca Suki Restaurant in Jakarta who were on strike for 15 days. Three days later, on August 6, the union at Coca Suki Restaurant in Surabaya also declared a strike. In what workers believed to be the collusion between the employer and the District Military Commander, six trucks of armed soldiers were sent to intimidate the workers and force them to end their protest.

At the mining site and port of PT. Freeport Indonesia in Timika, Irian Jaya, more than 5000 workers held a strike from August 10- 15 to demand higher wages. The workers were locked out on August 14, at which time armed soldiers were sent by the Central Military Command to end the strike. A number of workers are still missing.

On August 14, 250 workers at PT Sinar Baru in Majalaya, Bandung, organised a strike when the management rejected their list of 13 demands concerning better wages and working conditions. Troops sent by the Sub-District Military Command Office and the Sub- District Police harassed and intimidated the workers, interrogating five of them.

On August 25, over 1000 workers from PT. Tyfountex garment factory in Solo continued their 23 day strike by taking their protest to Jakarta where they demonstrated at the Manpower Department. They demanded an end to mass lay-offs, immediate remuneration of unpaid wages, and clarification of their Jamsostek entitlements. As the military moved in to end their protest march, 20 were workers injured. Two women workers suffered serious injuries.

This list is not comprehensive, and it is certainly not complete. What this shows is that acts of military violence and intimidation against workers, independent unions and labour groups occur on a regular basis, almost every week.

Despite the fact that such acts of brutal repression are continuing, many have already welcomed the announcement by the Manpower Minister, Fahmi Idris, that military intervention in labour disputes is coming to and end. On August 21, the Indonesian Observer reported that the Minister gave instructions for the military to stay out of labour disputes, saying that "military personnel would no longer be involved in drafting collective agreements between workers and employers, negotiating solutions to disputes - particularly dismissals". Internationally this was welcomed as another sign of progress under Reformasi, while locally it was greeted by workers and unionists with skepticism. The Manpower Minister's statement was only expressed in the form of a letter addressed to Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security, Feisal Tanjung, and as such has no binding power and is neither a regulation or policy. Moreover, the letter was not addressed directly to ABRI Commander General Wiranto, where real power over this matter lies. At best, what the Manpower Minister's statements reveal is that military intervention in labour disputes and direct involvement in collective bargaining is continuing.

In fact, no concrete guarantees have been provided to protect workers from this interference and intimidation, and no attempt has been made to rectify the laws and regulations which allow military intervention in the first place. Decree No. KEP/02/Stanas/XII/1990 issued by the Head of Bakorstanas (National Stability Coordinating Body) is a military regulation which legitimates military involvement in labour issues. Unless this and similar regulations are revoked, the Manpower Minister's reassurances are meaningless.

The other problem concerns the vague distinction between workers' strikes and demonstrations. In most cases, striking workers are locked out as soon as a dispute begins, with employers refusing to negotiate. It is common for workers to be dismissed before they even can sit down at the bargaining table. In addition, in workplaces where branches of the government-sponsored union, FSPSI, are in control, workers are forced to take to the streets because of the union's failure to defend their rights and interests. The result is that most strikes take the form of demonstrations outside the Manpower Department and other government offices.

However, under Decree No.2/1998 on freedom of expression', demonstrations are banned on public holidays and at night. Demonstrations in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace, military installations, places of worship, hospitals, airfields, ports and railway stations are also banned. Any demonstration involving less than 50 people must give written notice to the police at least 72 hours beforehand. For demonstrations involving more than 50 people, written authorisation must be obtained from the police at least 48 hours before the action. In this context it is easy for the military and police to accuse striking workers of violating the law since they are never granted permission to demonstrate. More importantly, workers are very unlikely to apply to register their strike as a demonstration.' Yet any strike taking to the streets can be declared an illegal demonstration, and overnight pickets - including pickets outside factories - are also deemed illegal. This allows the military to intervene to end these illegal' actions and to harass, intimidate or arrest organisers.

This reminds us that freedom of association, the right to strike, and the right to bargain collectively cannot be fully realised without the guarantee of other fundamental political and civil rights, particularly freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Without this guarantee, the military will always be in a position to undermine any and all labour and trade union rights achieved under Reformasi.

Ultimately, "de-militarising" labour relations in Indonesia involves much more than asking the military to stay away from labour disputes. It is necessary to set up institutional mechanisms to prevent the military intervening and to clearly establish that it is not a legitimate authority to be referred to in any labour or trade union matter. This means that the military cannot be allowed to participate in trade union activities, including participation in trade union congresses (a practice common to FSPSI and its predecessor, SPSI) since this not only reinforces the collusion between the military and yellow unions, but also perpetuates an ideology in which the military have a legitimate role in labour relations. Furthermore, military officers should not be asked to endorse the decisions and position of trade unions - a practice still carried out by the district and regional branches of the FSPSI and the FSPSI sectoral unions.

This is where the lack of real reform in the government-sponsored FSPSI and the FSPSI sectoral unions is most evident. Despite the coup launched against the leadership of FSPSI by leaders of the sectoral unions on August 21, these unions continue to maintain their ties to the military. In addition to the fact that there are a number of retired military officers in the leadership of these unions, union leaders perceive District Military Commanders to be key power-brokers in local politics and as such go out of their way to form alliances with them. This often means that plant-level unions are encouraged or instructed to accept District Military Commanders as objective' arbiters of labour disputes and observers of union elections.

Clearly, the challenge of removing the military from labour and trade union affairs is bound to be a difficult task. But it is not an impossible one. The limited democratic space which exists today was forced open by student demonstrations and the ongoing struggle of workers, independent unions and labour groups which refused to allow the Suharto regime's brutal acts of repression to go unchallenged or to be forgotten The memory of Marsinah, mudered by the military in 1993, reminds us of this. It also reminds us that this new democratic space was not granted from above, but was brought about through a long and difficult struggle from below. That is precisely why it is it is important to defend this fragile democratic opening from a possible military backlash by getting the military out of labour disputes, and getting them out of the everyday lives of workers. Only then will the real meaning of Reformasi be restored.

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