Indonesian Laborers Demand Bigger Share of Profits

Indonesian workers shout slogans during the commemoration of International Labor Day on the main street of the business district in Jakarta, Indonesia. (File)
Indonesian workers shout slogans during the commemoration of International Labor Day on the main street of the business district in Jakarta, Indonesia. (File)
Kate Lamb

Thousands of protesters marched through the Indonesian capital Tuesday demanding better working conditions to mark international Labor Day. While increasingly frequent strikes have revealed discontent within the labor force, analysts say Indonesia is still a long way from overcoming its sweatshop reputation. 

Traveling from all over to join the huge rally, thousands marched peacefully along Jakarta’s main roads to deliver their message to the presidential palace Tuesday.

Among the crowd was Dede Rasani, a 45-year-old factory worker from Bandung and a member of the Indonesian Trade Union Federation.

Rasani says the government neglects the rights of workers and fails to properly implement labor laws.

The government, he argues, should increase minimum wage, regulate pension payments and eliminate outsourcing.

Tuesday’s protest is the latest in a series in Indonesia in the past year.

The success of workers at West Papua’s Freeport mine, recently granted a 37 percent wage increase after a three-month strike, has encouraged laborers across the country rise up.

In February 20,000 factory workers in West Java demanded their minimum wage be increased, and they won. Their win has sparked similar victories in eight other provinces.

Sportswear producer Nike was recently forced to pay its local workers $1 million in unpaid overtime. There is also new controversy over allegations that uniforms for the London Olympic Games are produced under sweatshop conditions in Indonesia.

Yet depite the rising number of protests, economist Ichsan Fauzi says Indonesia’s huge pool of cheap labor undermines the likelihood of improved worker rights.

“The fact that unemployment and underemployment exists in this country and makes up 30 percent of the labor force means there will always be people who are willing to take jobs with less pay, less than the minimum wage, said  In a way, that puts a cap on the official labor movement,” said Ichsan.

Indonesia is experiencing rapid economic growth but Indonesian factory workers still remain some of the lowest-paid in Asia, making between $100 to $200 a month - lower than China, India, Malaysia and Thailand.

Many companies hire outsourced workers to avoid obligations in the labor laws. But even if the rate of outsourcing dropped, there is a fear that foreign companies will merely find cheap labor elsewhere.

Ichsan says despite labor groups’ recent victories, the country still a long way off from the kind of coordination efforts that have shaped workers’ rights elsewhere.

“You can’t compare the labor movement in Indonesia with those in Western Europe for example, that of staging widespread strikes," said Ichsan. "That has not been witnessed in this country.”

While Indonesia’s labor unions remain fragmented, seven groups recently announced they would form a national umbrella organization.

In response to Tuesday’s rally, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a new higher income ceiling that is not subject to tax, as well initiatives providing cheap housing for workers.

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