Government losing patience with Indonesia’s “anarchic” workers unions

By: Ardi Wirdana

Indonesian workers have staged two separate mass protests so far in February. This is only four months after their last mass demonstration in November, which was considered one of the biggest labour demonstrations to date.

Indonesians have started to become accustomed to the frequent street protests and the momentary chaos that comes with it. However, the actions of the labour union have started to take its toll on impatient government officials and business owners, who insist that stern action must be taken.

On February 6, a coalition of labour unions organised demonstrations in a number of big cities.  These demonstrations protested alleged mass layoffs by Japanese automakers Honda and Yamaha, as well as by electronics companies, Panasonic and Toshiba. The unions also claimed that a number of multinational pharmaceutical companies have also laid off hundreds to reduce production capacity.

The claims have been sternly refuted by government officials who say that the labour union had gravely exaggerated the layoff figures. Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM) Chairman Franky Sibarani said that Yamaha and Honda had not had a single layoff, while the job-cuts in Panasonic and Toshiba only amounted to 425 in total, far less than the 2,500 claimed by the union.

The demonstration in early February was followed by another set of demonstrations on February 16 to protest a criminal case brought against 26 fellow workers for alleged criminal actions in a demonstration in October.

A few of these protests turned violent, which prompted National Police chief General Badrodin Haiti to urge local authorities to take stern action against “anarchic” protestors. He and coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister both agree that the local police should not hesitate to use firearms if necessary to prevent protests escalating into violence.

Wage Policy at the Heart of Protests

Though the demonstrations were held to protest two different issues, both carried the same sub-demand, which was for the annulment of a regulation on minimum wage issued by the government last October.

The regulation introduced a new minimum wage scheme where labour wage increases are determined by a fixed formula.

The new formula requires the minimum wage to be adjusted every year based on an accumulation of inflation rate and economic growth figures. For example, assuming that the 2015 inflation rate and the economic growth were both 5 per cent, then the 2016 minimum wage would increase by 10 per cent.

This has fueled the rage of workers who feel that they are being robbed of their democratic right to negotiate the minimum wage.

In the past, the minimum wage was set based on the recommendation of a regional wage council, made up of representatives of the administration, business association and labour unions. The wage council would conduct surveys and hand the results to the governor who would then announce the new provincial minimum wage.

The workers’ collective discontent led to a nationwide strike and one of the biggest labour demonstrations the country has seen.

In the protests, the labour unions that took part pointed out that workers’ needs can never be accurately reflected by calculating annual inflation and economic growth rates. They also argued that their involvement in deciding the minimum wage is a constitutional right of workers in Indonesia.

To the workers’ frustration, their demands fell on deaf ears as the government refuse to budge from their policy. The workers unions vowed to continue to make their voices heard until changes are made to the policy.

Since then, the workers have gone on to frequently hold press conferences and stage demonstrations to protest against the new minimum wage scheme, but till now, the government has not flinched.

Instead, the government has chosen underline their authority by issuing another policy to limit the influence of labour unions in special economic zones. In a government regulation on Special Economic Zones Facility, the government has ruled that it will only recognise one labour union group in special economic zones and disregard the numerous others.

Low Education Level

According to former Jakarta Chamber of Commerce deputy chairman Sarman Simanjorang, Indonesians workers need to learn to express their aspirations in a more sophisticated manner.

“We should no longer have the culture of staging demonstrations every time you want your wage to rise,” Sarman told Asean Today.

According to Sarman the Indonesian workers’ habit of going on strike or protests may be due to the education level of the workers. According to data from the Manpower Ministry, up to 68 percent of the Indonesian workforce are elementary and junior high school graduates, while only 22 percent of the workforce are high school graduates.

“This is our weakness. In countries like Singapore and Malaysia there are far more university graduates in the workforce,” he said.

Sarman said that the low education level also affects the workers’ performance, productivity, and also wages. To overcome the education barrier, Indonesian workers should look to their counterparts in Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam whom, he says, have the initiative to enroll in after-work courses to raise their capabilities and, ultimately, their income.

“They have the willingness to improve their own competence. This needs to be taken into account by Indonesian workers and labour unions,” he said.