Labour rights in Indonesia today: Better or worse than under Suharto?

By Loke Hoe Yeong

A report by Human Rights Watch released late last month (May 2016) revealed that children who work in Indonesia’s tobacco fields are being exposed to serious levels of nicotine poisoning and safety hazards, sparking off a debate on the state of labour rights in Indonesia since the end of the authoritarian rule of President Suharto in 1998.

Indonesia is the world’s fifth largest producer of tobacco, with more than 500,000 tobacco fields that supply national and international tobacco markets. Human Rights Watch interviewed 130 children on their working conditions on small-scale farms across Indonesia, and found that children as young as age 8 are being routinely exposed to nicotine, toxic pesticides, as well as other dangers such as exposure to extreme heat, as a result of their work in cultivating and harvesting tobacco leaves.

Indonesia’s national labour laws prohibit children under age 18 from undertaking hazardous work, a definition which includes the exposure to harmful chemicals. Moreover, children under age 15 are prohibited from working altogether.

The report of Human Rights Watch has put the efficacy of such labour legislation under question.

Domestic workers abroad – action being taken

On the other hand, the Indonesian government has been taking steps towards improving the working conditions of Indonesian domestic workers who work abroad.

Last month too, the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower said it wants Indonesian domestic workers to live separately from their employers, in dormitories, as well as to work regular hours, and be entitled to public holidays and days off from work.

“We want better protection for our workers”, explained Soes Hindharno, the Ministry of Manpower’s director for the protection and placement of Indonesian migrant workers overseas. “ If they are always indoors, we don’t know if they have worked overtime. They should be compensated for that.”

“They are also free to do other chores, but don’t penalise them if they don’t do too well in areas outside their skill set.

In return, employers would get “better-quality” workers, Mr Hindharno said.

Labour rights under Suharto

Economic development was rapid under Suharto’s New Order, and indeed lifted many Indonesians out of poverty.

As more workers moved into manufacturing in the early 1990s, that precipitated greater labour unrest. Official government statistics recorded that while only around 1,000 workers went on strike in 1989, the figure soared to almost 150,000 in 1994.

That was largely because several new unions were taking on the sole government-authorised union, the All-Indonesia Workers Union (Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia, or SPSI, in Indonesian), especially during the five years in between.

And the government felt the need to tread carefully with the new unions, because it was concerned about losing its preferential tariff rates with the US, which was made contingent on Indonesia upholding internationally recognised workers’ rights, such as the right for workers to form unions.

Nevertheless, the Suharto government found other ways to keep the agitators of labour unrest in check.

Muchtar Pakpahan, the chief of the largest independent union in the country, was arrested for stirring riots in the Sumatran city of Medan in 1994, and sentenced to four years’ jail.

The following year, however, Indonesia’s Supreme Court acquitted him on account of a lack of evidence, at his trial. Yet in an unexplained turn of events, the Supreme Court then chose to hear the case again, which some observers concluded could only have been personally ordered by Suharto. The court then found Pakpahan guilty again.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, the Indonesian government recognised the right of workers to join trade unions, and to bargain collectively, through the ratification of International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions, and passage of the Trade Union Law in 2000.

National union federations and multiple other types of union structures were allowed, after 25 years of the government-authorised trade union. By the year 2003, the total number of union members was estimated to be almost 10 million. Since then, trade union membership can only have further increased exponentially, although some analysts question the veracity of these figures.

Naturally, trade union activism rose in the post-Suharto era, as a result of the loosening up.

During the Suharto years, the appointment for the Minister of Manpower was drawn from the ranks of security officials, technocrats, politicians and business

Leaders. Since then, it has been largely trade unionists who have taken that job.

If anything, this indicated a paradigm shift in the Indonesian government policy on labour rights and standards.

Since then, issues, further improvement in labour standards have been made in areas such as the protection of female workers.

With the Indonesian economy currently performing in a less stellar fashion, at least in sheer macroeconomic terms, the common expectation would be for labour rights to take a backseat – granted that Indonesia continues to make huge strides in rights protection since 1998.