The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Trouble with Indonesian Labour: Notes on Recent Struggles of Labour in Post New Order Indonesia.

President Suharto's authoritarian regime came to an end in 1998. 15 years later, the Indonesian labour movement is still highly fragmented and without real impact on policy-making. In this guest post, Anisa Santoso assesses the current situation of the Indonesian trade unions. 

Labour groups and overall socialist concerns in Indonesia gained prominence throughout the country’s struggle for independence and remained evident in the establishment of the country’s first government.  Despite this, Indonesian labour is still faced with the struggle to find its place in the social and political spaces of the country. After 32 years of repression under Suharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) regime, labour organisations are losing significance in Indonesian politics. Here we can see how legacies of Indonesia’s authoritarian past, internal divisions within unions, disagreements on radicalism, and conflicting political orientations fuelled by regional segregation in Indonesia have given birth to a labour movement that is disintegrated at the regional level and fragmented within central government politics.
 The disintegration of labour started early in Orde Baru. Fear of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI)’s vast expansion in the 1960s, followed by claims of a murderous plan of coup d’├ętat, provided reason for the newly elected General Suharto (who became the leader of the Orde Baru) to abolish all components of the party including their connections with radical labour groups. Though this was a reaction typical of Orde Baru state relationship with labour, on the other hand, it nurtured a co-dependent relationship between businesses, politicians and bureaucrats. The business classes’, mostly of Chinese ethnicities, reliance on Javanese majority bureaucrats, and to an extent Sumatran legal officers, created a corporatist group of elites, that actively participates in capital accumulation.

Orde Baru’s increasing gearing towards economic development prioritised the maintenance of stable climate for international investments by restricting labour organisation, a policy backed strongly by the military. While small region based unions were curtailed, more politicised grouping found their leaders imprisoned under the same anti-communism clauses that facilitated PKI’s invalidation. Adding this clause with Orde Baru’s claim to safeguard Indonesian pancasila[i], provided the base to further abolish labour organisations, including SOBSI (The Indonesian Centre of Labour Organisation), the largest labour organisation at the time. With SOBSI out of the picture, the strength of labour movement in Indonesian Orde Baru was crippled. A re-organization of the later day Orde Baru created a state sponsored union, which surviving unionists were forced to join, namely FBSI (Indonesian Workers Federation) which is now known as SPSI (The Indonesian Union of Workers). This trend portrays state and labour interaction in Indonesia before 1998, when de-politicization of labour and staunch control of the government was central.

Although post-Orde Baru brought political reforms accommodative to the working class, contrary to Rueschmeyer’s claims, Indonesian democracy was not a product of the country’s working class (Rueschmeyer, Stephens, and Stephens 1992).  Labour groups did kick start the end of Orde Baru, but the groups that provided support for this social movement did not all support working class identities. Tornquist (2004) notes the involvement of marginal intellectual groups, including scholars, journalists and civil society groups as equally significant in the struggle to bring down Orde Baru. In reality, even with sufficient opportunities offered by reformasi, labour groups continue to be relatively insignificant.  

The institutional disentanglement of Orde Baru led to reformasi that signified a chance for worker activism to blossom. Hundreds of labour strikes occurred between 1999 and 2000 (Tempo 2001), reconfirming the importance of labour’s voice in society. Although post- Orde Baru a number of labour-oriented parties have become influential, e.g the controversial PRD (People’s Democratic Party) and PDI-P (The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), one of the biggest opposition of Orde Baru’s Golkar (Functional Group) Party, labour organisations in Indonesia remained marginal to the overall political process. 

Even though reformasi provided the labour movement a return to the political scene, it also presented Indonesian labour with varying levels of disintegration. The tipping point came when the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organisation (AFL-CIO) provided support to release imprisoned unionists and create a single national trade-union federation under the SPSI. Perceiving this as subjugation from above, union members challenged it by abandoning SPSI, rejecting its leaders, forming their own unions with some establishing an anti-Orde Baru organisation called SPSI-reformasi. Meanwhile, rifts deepened between existing unions, rooted in their conflicts over association with the Orde Baru. The PPMI (Indonesian Muslim Solidarity Trade Union), for example, is connected to a Suharto founded ICMI (Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association), while GASBIINDO (Amalgamated Islamic Trade Unions of Indonesia) and GASPERMINDO (Amalgamated Islamic Free Trade Unions of Indonesia) has ties to the Orde Baru FBSI (Hadiz 2002). Opposite these are unions that insist on activism and an anti-Orde Baru mind-set, including the Jabotabek Trade Union, JEBAK (Network of Inter—City Workers), PDI-P connected FSPSI (All-Indonesia Labour Union Federation) and the more politically radical, PRD-connected FNPBI (National Front for Indonesian Labour Struggle).

Regional dynamics also contribute to labour disorganisation. The 1999 Decentralisation Law gave greater authority to regional governments on public sector economies and businesses, meaning less control over business-local politics relations. This allows businesses to use ties to local political leaders and political party related militia, including (ironically) PDI-P’s, to suppress unfavourable labour activism (Ford 2001; Aspinall 1999). This signifies less room for labour to develop in regional as well central government politics. Moreover, Orde Baru’s 32 years of Javanese-centric bureaucratic control and repression has resulted in increasing antipathies from other ethnicities, further evoking anti-central government sentiment. Existing Orde Baru institutions and ethnic-centred bureaucracy have also dampened the effort of largely non-Javanese unions in building a more agreeable labour representative at the central government level. This is worsened by regional unions’ lacking technical capacities in comparison to their capital-based counterparts. Consequently, the consolidation of an Indonesian-wide voice of labour has proven insufficient to promote a solid lobby at the central government level.  

Another reason for labour’s marginal status in Indonesia is the uncertainty within its efforts at politicization. Despite intentions to develop a grassroots labour movement with a functioning political wing in the government, existing unions have not always viewed unionism as a political tool. Many labour activists “do not see any relations between struggles at the workplace and those over politics” (Tornquist 2004, : p.392), making the establishment of labour parties from existing labour unions difficult. When labour-oriented parties are established, their detachment from union-level activism made them indifferent to the socio-political economic concerns of the grassroots. The outcome to this is worker disassociation from voting for the parties, making recent labour parties such as PBN (National Labour Party) and PRD unsuccessful in gaining favourable governmental position. Furthermore, when some union leaders became a part of the central government, the tendency to forfeit their labour union struggle for the sake of stability becomes considerable. 

The Indonesian labour movement has moved far beyond the limitation and oppression of Orde Baru. However, Orde Baru legacies evidently contributed greatly to its recent shortcomings. Internal disagreements and conflicting political orientation made disorganisation rife within existing unions, while the remaining ethnic-specific bureaucratic structure limited their mobility. This suggests that several things need to be present before a more vibrant labour movement can play a significant political role in Indonesia; 1.) the establishment of more favourable institutions for labour inclusion in politics, 2.) better consolidation mechanism for existing unions to engage in party politics, and 3.) better technical capacities for regional unions to gain importance in central government. 


Aspinall, Edward. 1999. Democratisation, the working class and the Indonesian transition. Review of Indonesian and Malayan Affairs 33 (2):1-32.

Ford, Michelle. 2001. Challenging the Criteria of Significance: Lessons from Contemporary Indonesian Labour History. Australian Journal of Politics and History 47 (1):101.

Hadiz, Vedi R. 2002. The Indonesian Labour Movement: Resurgent or Constrained. In Southeast Asian Affair 2002 edited by D. Singh and A. L. Smith. Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asia Studies.

Moertopo, Ali. 1972. Some Basic Considerations in 25- Year Development. The Indonesian Quarterly 1 (1):4, 13, 14. 18.

Morfit, Michael. 1981. Pancasila: The Indonesian State Ideology According to the New Order Government Asian Survey 21 (8):840-841.

Rueschmeyer, Dietrich, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens. 1992. Capitalist Development and Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

Tempo. 2001. Tempo, 30 January-5 February 2001.

Tornquist, Olle. 2004. Labour and Democracy? Reflections on the Indonesian Impasse. Journal of Contemporary Asia 34 (3):377-399.

Anisa Santoso successfully completed her Ph.D. thesis on ‘A two level sociological institutionalist critique of migrant workers protection: A state and regional analysis of Indonesia and the Philippines’ in November 2012.

[i] The Five Principles on Which Indonesian Life is supposed to be based and relying on. The principles includes belief in religion, upholding of justice and civilised humanity, the commitment on the integrity of Indonesia, upholding of consultation and consensus in decision making and a commitment towards social justice in Indonesia.(Moertopo 1972; Morfit 1981).

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