Seminar on Trade Union Movement and Democracy in Indonesia, in Two Acts

Dr Surya Tjandra, an activist-academic with expertise on labour laws gave an overview on the development of labour politics in Indonesia with a response by Dr Maxwell Lane, Senior Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
Wednesday, 6 July 2017 — Trade and labour unions have contributed significantly in shaping politics in Indonesia. A presentation by Surya Tjandra, an activist-academic with expertise on labour laws gave an overview on the development of labour politics in Indonesia. Responding to his presentation was Dr Maxwell Lane, Senior Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The presentation drew 13 attendees from the media, higher educational institutions, organizations as well as private individuals.

Dr Tjandra focused on two recent acts. Act 1, entitled “A Racist Worker,” showed a post from where a worker threatened Ahok and Jokowi using racist words. In Act 2, entitled “The Burning of Flowers”, Dr Tjandra highlighted how unions have their own armed militant wings and disclosed that he used to work with them as he thought that it was important since armed wings could be deployed with less psychological barriers. They formed the core of the “geruduk pabrik” (factory sweeping) in 2012–13 in Jakarta and surrounding regions, to put pressure on companies and factories for problematic labour practices such as outsourcing. On May Day in 2017, hundreds of workers rallied in front of the City Hall in Jalan Merdeka Selatan, and burned hundreds of flowers, which Jakarta residents had compiled and dedicated to Ahok and Djarot as their expression of gratitude. Those behind this burning had previously declared their support to Anies Baswedan and Sandiaga Uno at the Gerindra Party headquarters in Jakarta, about a month ago. This meeting was attended by Prabowo Subianto. 

The seminar was chaired by Dr Deasy Simandjuntak, Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Tjandra believed that the two acts indicated that identity politics of religion and race was on the rise in Indonesia. Right wing populism was also gaining momentum in Indonesia, and labour played an important role in this process. He added that religious radicalism-fundamentalism was soaring in Indonesia, while some labour [leaders] utilized this sectarian hatred and ignorance for political mobilization. He mentioned that many labour unions organized “defend Islam” rallies on the same day of 4 November and 2 December. Political elites have significant roles in using this highly visible mass to gain power. 

Dr Lane remarked that the rise of right wing, sectarian population has been discussed extensively, especially in the lead up to the Jakarta gubernatorial election, but the turning point for labour to be involved in practical politics was in 2013–14, when the most high-profiled union, the federation of metal workers union (FSPMI), orientated towards Gerindra and supported the campaign of Prabowo against Jokowi. Even before then, Said Iqbal was already running for election (under the PKS banner) in 2009. Dr Lane said this needed to be analyzed as a specific turning point within that union and that does not represent workers in general, but represents those often involved in high-profile mobilization. In that sense, there was a slow crystallization of an actual ideological contestation. He added that there are plenty of other smaller left-wing unions, though they too are caught up in contradictions because they have a legacy of alliances with FSPMI. He concluded that with unions, organizational alliance shifts and pragmatic tactics often dominate over ideology for survival. Unfortunately, there is no internal democracy within FSPMI, and powerful leaderhip is very difficult to dislodge. 

However, in proportion to the workforce, the unionized labour is actually very small, since more than 90 per cent of enterprises in Indonesia have less than twenty people. Workers participating in unions mostly belong to middle and large enterprises, not these micro- and small-enterprises. So FSPMI runs a very high profile mobilization, but by itself, it is limited. Participants commented that for 2019, then there was a need to observe other dynamic forces — such as farmers (who form a large portion of the electorate and workforce), informal workers, etc. — outside of Jakarta.