Seventy years after Indonesia won its independence from the Netherlands, Indonesian workers are finally focusing on emancipating themselves from exploitation in their workplaces. While the economy has seen breakneck growth in recent years, workers have struggled for years, against deep corporate and political hostility, to build independent trade unions. Now, they’re beginning to make incremental gains.
In early February, unions in Indonesia’s food-processing industry—one of the low-wage sectors that has burgeoned across the region—formed an unprecedented coalition, an industry-wide federation representing 16 leading independent unions. Many of the federation’s workers supply the world’s most iconic commercial foods brands, including Coca Cola, Nestlé, Unilever, Danone, Indofood, and Phillips Seafood.
At Coca-Cola bottling plants, workers are rebelling against the mass firing of independent trade-union organizers, and putting pressure on Coca Cola: They’ve launched a “zero rights” campaign, chasing the company all the way to the winter Olympics to unmask the abuses behind its corporate-social-responsibility-imaging campaign (the soft-drink giant has been papering over its poor human-rights record lately by heavily marketing its supposedly progressive corporate ethical codes). Workers at a West Java bottling facility have been pushing for an independent union for years, but according to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), when they tried to unionize formally in 2015, their chairperson was suspended and then fired in retaliation. Similarly, when workers at the Amatil plant in Central Java sought to unionize in February 2017, their chairperson was transferred and fired within months. According to the ITUC Global Rights Index, their struggle reflects the kind of resistance that across the country leads to workers’ being “pressured to withdraw their support for their organizations, and their [unions’ being] shut out of the collective bargaining process.”
With backing from global Affiliates from Egypt to Brazil, the IUF has since continued to resist Coca Cola’s so-called “Zero Rights regime” in Southeast Asia, recently vowing to protest internationally “until the dismissed leaders of independent unions are reinstated in their jobs and Coca-Cola Amatil starts to negotiate with the two independent unions in good faith.” The union has recently extended its fight against the brand to the Philippines, accusing the management of unilateral mass layoffs without union negotiation in violation of OECD corporate-conduct guidelines, along with refusal to regularize hundreds of contingent workers’ contracts while cracking down on union-led protests.
The IUF is similarly continuing a protests in Lampung Province, Indonesia, at the exporter Great Pineapple, where workers were unilaterally laid off in 2016 and denied final wage payments, cutting off dialogue with the union.
At the Lampung operations of US-based multinational Phillips Seafood, which dominates the fishery supply chain from the Pacific to the Northeast, egregious abuses have been documented at a crabmeat-processing plant where workers have been laboring for 15 years without a contract, despite repeated mass protests demanding permanent, union-protected jobs. Back in 2015, more than 100 employees of the facility were abruptly dismissed amid an historic unionization drive, and the union has responded by calling out Phillips on its recent campaign to promote its brand as environmentally friendly. According to IUF, out of the 205 fired workers, only 50 were allowed to come back—as casual workers contracted on a daily basis—”on condition that they were not trade union members.” Though the company has been emphasizing its extensive fishing operations in Southeast Asia under the guise of promoting “sustainable” fishing, Indonesian activists counter that Phillips is actually exploiting Indonesia’s waters simply because its US-based stocks have been so heavily depleted. By moving massive crabmeat operations overseas to feed its global market, “the company claims to be promoting sustainable fisheries. In fact it relies on disposable jobs.”
The workers at the coastal factories represent one end of a supply chain rife with abuses: Recent investigations by the AP and the International Labor Organisation have revealed massive labor abuses across the waters of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia specifically, a 2016 study found about 1,100 instances of labor and trafficking violations, ranging from excessive working hours to enslavement and murder of workers on fishing vessels.
Other global brands targeted by the new IUF federation, including Nestle, Indofoods, and Unilever, have been linked to labor abuses in Indonesia’s palm plantations, a primary source of palm oil for industries across the world. Human-rights investigators have exposed endemic exploitation, such as child labor involving children as young as age 8, inadequate safety equipment, and poverty wages of about $2.50 a day.
While the unions’ efforts currently focuses on food processing workers, every campaign to bolster workers rights at one link in the production chain can uplift the rights of workers across sectors. On a global scale, independent unions can improve transparency and corporate accountability along a transnational production chain that currently lacks legal oversight or traceability of products, and often skirts regulation under corruption-plagued governments.
Because of overall weak enforcement of labor rights in Indonesia, workers face extreme economic insecurity as well as risk of retaliation if they dare to organize. But because the Swiss-based IUF organizes across the food, agricultural, and hospitality industries, their structure provides a global, multi-industrial platform for labor organizing on a range of labor and human-rights issues. Recent campaigns have tackled slavery in fisheries across Southeast Asia, sexual harassment in multinational factories, and fast-food workers’ rights.
Just as the union movement for food-processing workers launches in Indonesia, the IUF-affiliated FSPM Union is mobilizing a homegrown fast-food workers campaign, seeking union recognition and decent working conditions at the Champ Resto restaurant chain after years of struggling with job insecurity, suppression of organizers, and denial of health-care entitlements. They are joining a wave of fast-food organizing in Thailand and other Asian countries, in parallel with the US-based Fight for 15 campaign at low-wage fast-food outlets.
According to IUF General Secretary Sue Longley, under Indonesia’s “corrupt legal system,” even in unionized workplaces, “employers routinely tell workers that wages are excluded from collective bargaining because they are a ‘commercial secret’! Two decades after Suharto was forced from power, workers are still waiting for democracy at the workplace.” The new federation provides a basis for “a solidarity network which can give broad support to workplace struggles and strengthen the fight for independent, democratic union power in Indonesia.”
Twenty years after liberation from dictatorship, Indonesia has shifted to neoliberal capitalism. The next phase in its historical reckoning is giving workers an independent voice in a budding democracy.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post misplace a reference to 205 workers fired from a Lampung, Indonesia crabmeat factory—the workers were employed by Phillips Seafood. An earlier version of this article also misidentified the location of the Champ Resto restaurant chain—the chain is located in Indonesia, not Thailand.