Companion to East Timor - Growing labour unrest in the 1990s

Growing labour unrest in the 1990s

Suharto's real fear was the threat of an alliance between organized urban labour and rural elements such as peasants and small landowners. For this reason he ignored suggestions from the World Bank to remove subsidies on cooking oil, kerosene, fertilizer and other essential commodities. He remained wary of potential trouble in industrial zones in major cities. These zones had been created as a result of his government's pursuit of economic growth through factory-made labour-intensive goods designed for export. The workforce was forced to be cheap, submissive and politically passive. The Suharto regime intervened regularly on behalf of corporate interests. For example, workers were deemed to have resigned if they did not return to work within two days of being ordered to do so by the company or the Ministry of Labour. The government took no action against employers who violated health and safety provisions as well as the minimum wage. It cracked down on Indonesian workers by abducting and interrogating labour activists, and used troops regularly to break strikes. It guaranteed a low-wage economy in order to attract foreign investment and increase corporate profits. The starting wage for a female process worker was set at US$1.35 per day. A study found that 88 per cent of Indonesian women who worked for this wage were found to be suffering from malnourishment.1

Little wonder, then, that labour unrest was growing in Indonesia. In 1985, Indonesia had experienced 48 wildcat strikes. By 1992 the figure had risen to 200. In 1993 there was a 40 per cent increase over the previous year.2 But these protests could invite deadly retaliation. In May 1993, a 25-year-old worker named Marsinah from Sidoardjo, East Java, joined 14 other workers in a meeting with the management of PT Catur Putra Surya, a watch factory, in order to discuss a wage dispute. The local military headquarters summoned her co-workers and forced them to sign letters of resignation. Marsinah went to the headquarters in order to inquire about her friends. She was found dead three days later in a shack near a rice field. Her corpse showed signs of torture and rape.3 Despite intimidation from the military, some newspapers in East Java and local NGOs publicized her case, which made its way to the International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva.

Indonesia was coming under increasing pressure to adhere to international labour rights standards. In the late 1980s the AFL-CIO (US federation of labour unions) had begun to petition the office of the US Trade Representative to revoke trade privileges for Indonesia under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP). The GSP allowed Indonesia (and other relevant countries) to export certain goods to the US without having to pay duties. The catch was that Indonesia had to take or be taking steps to respect international labour standards. In 1993, enough political traction had been achieved. The US Trade Representative, Mickey Kantor, ordered a formal review of Indonesia's compliance with international labour standards as a condition of renewing its GSP status the next year. In order to deal with the threat of losing GSP privileges, the Indonesian government dropped its usual public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, hiring instead the firm of Crowell and Moring International, which specialised in GSP issues. One of its lobbyists was former Assistant US Trade Representative Doral Cooper, who had previously administered the GSP program and helped develop US trade policy in Asia. While GSP privileges were never revoked, the threats allowed unions more freedom to organize, at least for some time. They challenged the legality of decrees that allowed the army to intervene in labour disputes. Other lawyers challenged the government ban imposed on a congress of the largest independent trade union, the Indonesia Welfare Labour Union (SBSI). Many opponents of Suharto became supportive of East Timor, seeing it as another way to weaken the regime.

In March 1993 Indonesia suffered an embarrassing defeat at the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission, which passed a resolution criticizing it for ongoing human rights abuses in East Timor. It was the first such resolution against Indonesia, which had entered the Commission in a powerful diplomatic position.


1 R. Rothstein, The Global Hiring Hall, The American Prospect, Vol. 17, 1995, pp. 52–61.

2 R. Erlich, Labour unrest was growing in Indonesia, San Francisco Chronicle, 16 September 1993.

3 Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, A Preliminary Report on the Murder of Marsinah, Amsterdam 1994.