Battlefield Indonesia

In Indonesia, workers are resisting low wages and demanding health care coverage, and indigenous communities are resisting corporate-enforced destruction.

Submitted by rooieravotr on June 26, 2013

Price rises are provoking revolt in yet another country. The country is Indonesia, the price concerns fuel, and the revolt takes the form of rallies and strike action. The events can be seen as just a new round in a series of workers' struggles for better living standards, against a state and a capitalist class that tries to make profits by keeping wages as low as possible, by destroying the forest and the livelihood of people.

The current conflict broke out after the government raised fuel prices. Diesel went up with 22 percent, petrol by a dramatic 44 percent. The government tries in this way to contain the cost of subsidizing fuel, a cost that takes about 3 percent of the budget. Prices of fuel are relatively low. But for poor Indonesians, they are e burden, and the rise was met with immediate protest. “The announcement sparked clashes in the capital, Jakarta, where protesters blocked the road and fought with police.” Students in Yogyakarta and Surabaya rallied, police arrested several of them. There gave been earlier efforts to raise fule prices. “But previous attempts have been derailed by violent protests.” In other words: fear of rebellious people has been blocking the government's road to neoliberal price reform. An encouraging sign.

Another encouraging sign, from Jakarta on 21 June : “In the city's satellite industrial centers, thousands of workers downed tools to protest the government's plan to raise the price of subsidized fuel. Calls to companies in the Cikareng industrial ares, near Bekari, revealed that many workers had left jobs before Friday prayers. Said Iqbal, president of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Unions (KSPI) said on Friday morning the indur strial areas in Bekasi, Cibitung and Cikarang, West Java, had been paralyzed by workers walking out en masse.”

Indonesia has seen wave after wave of workers' rebellion in recent months and years. It is a country in which multinational and local corporations profit from low wages. It ios also a coun cvry where workers have succesfully used the political opening after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998. There is a trade union movement, there are strikes, workers are pushing for better living standards. And quite succesfully so, sometimes. For instance, there have been trade union demonstrations for a better minimum wage. In February, “the government decided to raise minumum salaries by about 40 percent – to about $ 200”. The government had its reasons: “Massive demonstrations by unions demanding a fairer share of the country's economic growth, which stands at more than 6 percent, led to the national wage increase.” Capitalist succes, gained on the back of low-waged workers, led to resistance. And this resistance had results.

The story didn't end there. Businisses and ther organizations warned that higher wages would bring about factury closures and the loss of jobs. There was delay in the new wage law's implematation, leading to new protests. On Februariy 6, a day after the government's decision, there was action again. “Tens of thousands of people are protesting in Inodonesia against government plans to delay its planned increase of the minimum wage.” And so it goes. Workers' pressure, giovernment concession, governmant bakctrtcking on their concession, more workers pressure. Again, an encouraging sign.

On 10 April, there was a trade union demonstration in Jakarta “to protest against low wages and to demand than the government impelment health care coverage for Indonesians”. Thousands participated. Workers' strength was on display again on the First of May , workers' day. “Indonesian workers converged on Central Jakarta in Wednesday's massive May Day rally, halting public transportation and closing down major arteries.” Massive it certainly was: “More than 135.000 workers from three of Indonesia's largest labour unions joined the protest on Wednesday.” Workers protested against outsourcing, a practice that the giovernma ent has already limited, but that trade unions want abolished.

Another theme already mentioned: “the government planned fuel subsidy cuts.” The government cannot say that they haven't been warned. And already before the announcement of the price srises, there were protest rallies. On June 18, “thousands demonstrated nationwide against an plan to hike fule prices.” Demonstrators throew Molotov cocktails, police shot teargas and used water cannons. In Jakarta alone, there was en 3,000 strong rally near the parliament building. There is more here than regular trade union activity, though that is not lacking.

These are all class battles against neoliberal reform and capitalist exploitation of urban workers. Neoliberalism has other destructive effects, however. There is the the Freeport mine, where an accident earlier this year led to protests and strike action. There is the activity of multinational corporations in the countryside, leading to environmental destruction, clashes and deaths. “Land conflicts between farmers and plantation owners, mining comnpanies and developers have raged in Indonesia as local and multinational companies have been encouraged to seize and then deforest customary land – land owned by indigenous people and administerd in accordance with their customs. More than 600 were recorded in 2011, with 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries.”

A founder of a 700.000 members strong Peasant Union talks about “a new poverty” and a “crisis of landlessness and hunger.” He adds: “Human rights violations keep occurring around natural resources in the country and intimidation, forced evictions and torture are common.” Neoliberalism in the cities means poverty, low wages and price rises. Neoliberalism in the countryside often means hunger and death. Neoliberalism in the countryside also means the destruction of forests. Yes, there has been a moratorium announced on deforestation. But there are exemptions and loopholes and illegal business activities, so the destruction continues, with all the ecological destruction and human suffering it implies. Sumatra's rainforests may disappear in seven years, so a Greenpeace campaigner expects.

Deforestation is continuing, but communities are resisting. “Mursay Ali, from the village Kuala Cenaku in the province of Riau, spent 10 years fighting oil plantation companies which were awarded a giant concession. 'Maybe 35,000 people have been imnpacted by their plantations. Everyone is very upset. People have died in the protests. I have not accepted defeat yet. These conflicts have been going on everywhere. Before the companies came, we had a lot of natural resources, like honey, rattan, fish, shrimps and wood. (...) We had all we wanted. That all went when the companies came (...) We We are all poorer now. I blame the companies and the govermnent, burt most of al the government', he continued. He pleaded with the company: 'please give us back the 4,100 acres of land. We would die for this if necessary. This is a life or death', he says.”

Meantime, back to the cities, the workers, the trade unions. These unions express the anger of workers, but at the same time channel the anger into relatively moderate forms with all the mystifications of 'social partnership and so on. On the First of May, a government official even particpated in the trade union rally. That does not meain that empoyers are satisfied with even this moderate form of workers' organization. Companies dismiss workers tryiong to form unions, and use subte pressure against union members, thought trade unions are legal in Indonesia. Even moderate workers'organization within the law, and without any anticapitalist orientation, is too much for bosses. We already saw the bosses' threats against wage rises: minimum wage rise means closures and lay-loffs. A confident workers' movement could well answer: 'you try to close the factory? We'll occupy and run it under workers' self management. Like they are doing in Greece'

Things have not reached that stage in Indonesia – yet. But a workers' movement that already has forced a giovermment to raise the minimum wage, and by earlier exoressions of anger caused delay in the fuel price rises, can be expected to take more encouraging steps in its fight against neoliberal capitalist exploitation. Watch Indonesia, its striking workers, demonstrating students and its resisting peasant and indigenous communities. They may strike fear in governments and factory owners, to the powerful and the rich. They may bring cheer to the rest of us.

This article was fiirst written for, where you can read an edited and illustrated version. It can also be read on my own site,

Peter Storm