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.