Indonesia: when public services workers unionized

Union is the best organization for fighting against oppression and injustice (Itje Julinar, General Chairperson of Angkasa Pura 1 Union)

It takes more than thirty years for public sector workers in Indonesia to enjoy freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Even though they currently are enjoying those rights through the ratification of ILO Core Convention No. 87/1948, the vast majority of workers somehow hold negative perception about union. They are yet to aware that trade unions have been important institution of industrial society and, as Jose (1999) says, they have helped deliver significant outcomes in terms of improved living standards, equity and justice to workers all over the world. Inherent benefits and strategic roles the union brings about for workers do not immediately drive enthusiasm of Indonesian public sector workers. This may be partly caused by restrictive practices of the rights in the past creating the conditions in which workers responded in negative judgment to the union movement while at the same time workers also praised that unions would be able to make change and provide workers with power in workplaces through industrial democracy.

It  becomes clear that trade union movement is to advance the common interests of most working people and in heading to new era of trade unionism, all workers in Indonesia should have the rights to organize and join their union, in particularly public sector workers. Although there is no distinction between public sector workers and private sector workers regarding to common interests at workplace, and they also face similar challenges as the employers resist unionization overtly or covertly, practices and legislation in Indonesia case for guiding public sector workers and their union in exercising their rights say another thing. Nature of public employment as described in previous article (Workers in the public sector and Trade Unionism) is assumedly made significantly different from one in private sector; in addition to that unionism is something new to public sector workers. It is very possible that circumscribed with such condition and challenges has made the public workers come to realize that unionism gives them new roles. Yet, public sector unions are not just economic actors together with private sector workers, but they have an important function as democratic actors both in society and workplace.  

Why Organise and Why Union

The ratification of ILO Convention No. 87/1948 pushed the government to speed up implementation of freedom of association in practice. Shortly after, KORPRI[1] had their Fifth Congress in 1999, the State-Owned Enterprises Workers was given free options either to continue to affiliate to KORPRI or not. Later on, there was a circular issued by Minister of BUMN[2] No. S.19/MSA-5/BUMN/1999 to directors of BUMNs concerning facilitation to establish union. The letter “forced” state-owned enterprises to facilitate and campaign for the establishment of work-site unions. One of motives behind the issuance of the circular might be because some organizations announced that they withdrew their memberships from KORPRI and, therefore, the government thought it was needed for the workers of State-Owned Enterprises to establish their particular unions. Besides, prior to the circular, government had issued Government Regulation No. 12/1998 concerning Regulations for Implementing Limited Company which was implementation of and explanation for Law No. 1/1995. The regulation states that union within BUMN is needed for in place of KORPRI. Article 38 of the regulation says:

Employee of Limited Company is worker of the Company whose appointment, dismissal, position, rights and responsibilities is arranged based on collective bargaining referring to effective manpower laws”.

It might be that most of workers of BUMNs will agree and contentedly welcome this new era. However, when I asked some people involved in campaigns for the establishment of the state-owned enterprises’ unions they said:

“Lot of us is yet to know what union is and some of us who knew about union hold negative perception on union movement and this has caused us to have a long debate to determine name for the organization, whether we use worker union or labour union labels. We are used to call ourselves official-staff or employee and this is to distinct ourselves from labour or factory workers. At the end, we use worker union label, but they use staff or employee association labels. In fact, these are same entities which are unions referring to enacted and effective laws[3]

This information actually affirms what Bent and Reeves (1978) said that white-collar workers tends to different themselves from blue-collar workers, “white collar continues to identify him/herself with management and does not evolve a working class consciousness; therefore they may be reluctant to reduce his/her status by joining union” (pp 7). Meanwhile Drake (1920) said that even though clerical workers belong to almost industry but however there are difficulties of demarcation between purely clerks’ organizations or a “craft” character from the existing industrial unions (pp 171). On the other side, many factors may be involved, including the attitudes of workers toward the union, and restrictive and top-down control within KORPRI in the past created a situation in which management would still be able to control over union by sitting their representatives at high-level posts within organizational structure of the union. Those factors affirm statement by Itje Julinar, President of Pekerja Angkasa Pura 1 Union (SP AP 1[4]):

It needs almost three years to carry out roles of genuine union. In its inception (1999) we looked like to only rename from KORPRI into Serikat Pekerja Angkasa Pura 1. There were no single activity reflecting role of a union especially regarding efforts to improve conditions and terms of employment through collective bargaining. The fear to carry out actively the organization wheels as a union in workplace was still lingered on. Therefore, union education for all colleagues was first priority as I was elected to be president of this organization in 2003. This was a commitment to strengthen the power and confidence of workers through building knowledge and skills. Obviously, this made easier for the committee and the organization in carrying out roles of a union, and only within one year we were able to create our first collective bargaining agreement.”

It seemed that ratification of ILO convention and the issuance of labour union/trade union law do not drive the workers to immediately grab the opportunity to enjoy the rights of freedom association and collective bargaining. Perhaps Itje Julinar’s statement is correct for this point of views laying out fact about “iron law of management” that hard for workers to develop a consciousness of their collective interests and capacity to act on them. Even though the Labour Union/Trade Union Law No. 21/2000 clearly states and guarantees for the protection of rights to organize (chapter VII) and sanction for violation against the rights (chapter XII). Organizing active participation is likely still to be a “battle” for unions of public workers despite high union density at such workplaces. This pushes union of public sector workers to keep on trying to pay close attention to win heart and minds of workers and to keep the members loyal as well. Such challenges, added with union-busting by management which offering promotion and ranks to workers and committee of union, seems to be hard to be resolved if the union keeps on doing their business in old-school ways and does not look for international supports.

Meanwhile, Serikat Pekerja Perusahaan Listrik Negara (SP PLN[5]) as revealed by its president, Mr. Daryoko[6], is now facing the similar challenge. However, he convinced that:

“union is the right organization for workers with all its legal instruments for protecting interests and rights of workers in workplace. In addition, union as an important actor can play their role for social reconstruction on social justice and equality. Therefore, we see the roles of union are like to provide ample room for us to raise not only problems at workplace but also interests of public, especially related to electricity”

Even though it is the right place for the workers to voice and defend interests of themselves and of wider society, the PLN Union was faced with unprecedented challenge when the government introduced a new legislation, Law No. 20/2002, to liberalize electricity market in 2002. This law opened the door for private sector to have majority shares in the state-owned enterprise and, corollary, manage it at their will at the expense of wider society interest. In fact, the law indirectly threatened job security of 48,000 workers at the company. Because of this, PLN union organized its members to transform and to institutionalize their agenda to challenges of their greater roles while at the same time bearing in their mind that as a new established union it must tackle many works especially one related to revitalize its memberships.

Therefore, PLN Union took a priority in their agenda which was engaging member consciousness in order to change attitude and expectation put by its members and other stakeholders on its shoulders related to its new roles as union organization, particularly role in labour-management partnership related to economic power resources of collective bargaining and protecting workplace. For that moment they succeed in generating and increasing activism of union members, especially as the union won a landmark decision in the Constitutional Court, which cancelled the Law No. 20/2002 on Electricity in December 2004 after two years struggle.

Until 2005/2006, based on verification conducted by ministry of manpower and transmigration, there are 3,388,597 Indonesian workers who join with 11,444 unions[7]. However, the ministry does not specify about memberships at unions within state-owned enterprises, but only shows that Federation of State-Owned Enterprises Unions has 86,607 members. According to my observation, this federation does not represent unions within the state’s companies. Meanwhile, there are 1,237 company-level unions with 305,959 memberships[8].

PGRI[9] in this relation only registers 126,347[10] memberships from total 1,723,657 teachers. If this is true, then Labour Union/Trade Union Law No. 21/2000 hinders them from joining with union because of their civil servant status. And this affirms what ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) has been reported previously that in 2009 and 2010:

“the government of Indonesia continued to undermine workers rights by failing to enforce labour laws, described the civil servants categories as workers prohibited or limited in law from forming or joining a union, or from holding a union office  – the law gives civil servants the right to organize, but their rights are carefully regulated- ”.

It means true that article 44 of Law No.21/2000 grimly hinders to civil servants from exercising out freedom of association and contravenes with values described in ILO Convention No. 87/1948:

“workers…without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization”.

Whilst, the definition of worker is anyone who work with pay or compensation in other forms (Law No. 21/2000 on Labour Union/Trade Union). In other words, worker is s/he who is under working/industrial relation and receives wage as described in Law No. 43/1999 on Amendment to Law No. 8/194 on Principles of Civil Servant, article 1 (a):

“ …Public servants are those who after fulfilling requirements specified in effective legislations are appointed by the competent authority and in charge of duties of state official or entrusted with other state duties which are defined on basis of legislation and paid according to effective laws”

Right to associate is constitutionally and clearly regulated and guaranteed in the 1945 Constitution that:

“freedom of association, assembly, speaking out one’s mind both orally and written, getting job and decent living for humanity, as well as having the same position before the law is a right of every citizen”

This should be a solid reference along with ratified ILO Convention No. 87/1948 and provision under article 44 (1) of Law No. 21/2000 on Labour Union/Trade Union as well. Until recently, in article 44 (2) there is no such provision and, therefore, effective legislations may be corner-stoned to be legal case for neither limiting or prevent civil servants from enjoying freedom of associate.

Similar statement was also aired by General Chairperson of PGRI Sulistiyo:

This organization has been trying hard to get recognition as a union because union is part of identity of PGRI since its inception. The existing legal instruments might be employed to bring about cases to win interest of teachers in enjoying freedom of association. Of course, this victory shall have split-over effect upon other civil servants, and this struggle would not be easy keeping in mind both status of civil servants as state apparatus and implications of political configuration as the legal products were adopted to win civil servants in their rights to association and to organize in union. It’s going to take a long time, but may be not such that long depending on ways we build correct knowledge about union upon civil servants, and PGRI has started to do this”.

Unlike in the private sector, in public sector issue of managerial prerogative operates under the guise of sovereignty in order to maintain for the good of all, public. If workers-employers might have conflict, it may result in term of violate the public interest or interruption of services (Bent and Reeves, 1978). Therefore, in many countries in Asia including Indonesia public sector rights for freedom association are carefully regulated. Because strike is embedded right of freedom association and collective bargaining then public employees are limited or prohibited at all to hold a strike. Nevertheless, this limitation will not undermine their rights to voice and defend their interest and rights at work.

It is with union that public sectors workers can gain international acknowledgement of their status and develop relation with the global union, and this is stipulated in article 26 Labour Union/Trade Union Law No. 21/2000:

“trade unions/labour unions, federations and confederations of trade unions/labour unions may affiliate to and or cooperate with international trade unions/labour unions and or other internationals on the conditions that the affiliation or the cooperation is not against prevailing laws and regulations”.

Internationalism of the unions allows them to build cooperation and solidarity in order to increase and widen workers influence and power. Beside, international union network makes it possible for workers to be more represented and strength in facing pressures. Almost all global union federations has their affiliates  in Indonesia: Public Service International (PSI) has six affiliates (SP.PLN, SP.PJB, PP Indonesia Power, SP Angkasa Pura 1, SP PDAM Jakarta[11] and FSP FARKES/R[12]); PGRI is affiliated to Education International (EI); International Transport Federation (ITF) has its affiliates: Ikatan Awak Kabin Garuda (IKAGI[13]), Serikat Pekerja Kereta Api Indonesia (SP KAI[14]), Serikat Pekerja Peti Kemas Koja[15] and Trade Union of Jakarta International Container Terminal (JICT); Serikat Pekerja Pos Indonesia (SP PI[16]) affiliates to Union Network International (UNI) through ASPEK Indonesia[17]. As Brahmanie Hastawati[18], union activist of IKAGI, says:

“being affiliated to international union has given more power for bargaining in wider scope because (being affiliated) unites sector/industrial workers across borders, across countries. It is vital for trade union to seek strength of the trade union movement world-wide by working together through cooperation and solidarity”.

Furthermore, global union federation given affiliates chances to share and exchange information about new trends on union organizing, campaigning and bargaining. It therefore becomes important to develop global strategies and capture all possibilities to ensure the rights and interests of workers correctly in locally to globally.

Referring to report of ILO Jakarta that ratification of ILO Convention 87/1948 has brought about significant changes to make positive progress towards promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining and that the labour laws enshrine workers rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining including the right to form unions, right to strike and the right to bargain collectively. However, there is still further progress which needs to be making (Palmer, 2008). In fact, unions are fragmented. This fragmentation is very probably to weaken union movement and to open the door for violations against rights to organize and against the execution of rights to collective bargaining. This highlights what Rekson Silaban[19] (2009) said:

“labour unions in Indonesia are highly fragmented, making it difficult to build up solidarity and a strong social-political bargaining base – the more labour unions we have, the more precarious the situation of existing unions will become-”.

It is, therefore, the hole in Labour Union/Trade Union Law No. 21/2000 that makes it possible for any worker to form union at workplace provided that their minimal number is 10 workers (article 5(2)) is often capitalized by management to “justify” their violations on behalf of freedom of association, which is to form contra-union (union with its committee puts their loyal to management) to rival workers-established union that starts going strong.

Ratification ILO Convention 87/1948 and labour laws are favourable for workers in public sector to organize themselves into union and collective bargaining. However, they substantially still discriminate against civil servant or subject to existing laws are not applicable to them. This can be referred to as the dilemma of civil servants in Indonesia on exercising the right to freedom association and collective bargaining. There is Convention No. 151/1978 to tackle such a dilemma but, unfortunately, Indonesia has yet to ratify that convention. But, if look back to commitment of Indonesia as member of ILO who participates in adopting Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at work Declaration Rights at Work on June 2008, it is clear that:

“the Declaration commits Members States to respect and promote principles and rights in four categories, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions. Indonesia is equally obligated as do the other countries to respect for and promote the declaration”

However, review to statement from Tia Mboeik[20] (union activist) revealed that

“Indonesia is ‘forced‘ to ratify ILO Convention No. 87/1948 as a precondition for gaining loan in order to recover from 1997 financial crisis. In spite of that, the convention is instrumental for implementing principles of freedom of association and protection for worker rights to organize. Although, in practices workers are confronting various difficulties when the existing labour laws make distinctions between  and discrimination against specific worker such as civil servant or worker in informal sector which hinders them to establish or join with union. Therefore, strengthening real and correct implementation of international labour standards is a must. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that International Labour Organization (ILO) is still a government driven institution due to the process of selection of the worker and employer representatives. If we look to Indonesia union context in which there are three confederations and tens of federation, then the question is which one is most feasible and proper to represent interests of workers? ILO is supposed to provide union with roles of international legitimacy for them to be main actors in defending the standards. Besides, ILO conventions are soft laws, instruments which do not have power to sanction whenever violations against them occur. This, sequentially, also raises another challenge for union here: how they make use of supervisory mechanism whenever there is a violation? If union is able to make use of them, then they are doing effective efforts to push government to implement labour standards”.

The union provides collective voices of workers in the workplace: firstly, collective voice is an information source of workers preferences which should result in improving of wages and personal policies; secondly, collective voice may improve morale, motivation and cooperation; thirdly, the voice may improve working practices; fourthly, voice may provide better grievance procedures, and; fifthly, may provide mechanism to improve the employment contract (Metcalf, 2003. Pp. 125). Join with and be member of a union can give tangible benefit at workplace. However, the propensity of some individuals to join unions is rather gloomy. This may be because union is too weak as instrument of collective voice of workers or because of ideological commitment. Related to ideological affairs of unions in Indonesia, Rekson Silaban (2009. Pp 90) said that “the majority of today’s labour activists and labour unions have a fluid ideology”. However, the existence and the power of trade unions depend on their ability to attract and nurture a loyal membership. In addition, union in this modern time is required to act in two arenas: the state and politics on the one hand, and the labour market and collective bargaining on the other.

Well, overall if we look at the existing situation of freedom association in Indonesia, it seems that by and large such situation has been well capitalized by Indonesia workers, especially public services workers. Nevertheless, their consciousness about and level of participation in union varies greatly. Geographical situation of Indonesia creates a gap in knowledge about and skills in organization among Indonesian workers, besides headquarters of unions usually are in Capital City Jakarta whereas members of most of unions are scattered throughout this country including remote areas. This of course needs strong resources to activate all structures within the organizations, including financial capability. Meanwhile, the new organization culture needs to be strongly promoted among the public services workers which invites, encourages, and empowers them to take active responsibility for the live of the organization. Thus, the main focus here is whether the lesson learned from the existing legal framework of freedom of association and collective bargaining has already converted non-unionised public services workers into unionized workers or not. Indonesia civil servant has “unique”, if not unfavorable, position under Labour Union/Trade Union Law. However, the process in which they emerged as major agents of change in development contributing to the growth of trade unionism in Indonesia, has given birth a sense of needs to build and unite the collective identity or solidarity among all workers in order to address the concern of new challenges facing worker today and in the future.


[1] KORPRI: Korp Pegawai Republik Indonesia (Civil Servants Corp Republic of Indonesia)

[2] BUMN: Badan Usaha Milik Negara (State-Owned Enterprises)

[3] Preliminary interview by the observer as she started her jobs as PSI Coordinator Indonesia on September 1999, and the same interview is repeated as she met again with leaders and  committees of public sector union in Indonesia on July 2010

[4] Airport Workers Union of Angkasa Pura 1, re-interview on 6 July 2010

[5] Serika Pekerja Perusahaan Listrik Negara (SP PLN): State Own-Enterprise Electricity Workers Union of PLN

[6] Interview with Daryoko, President of SP PLN on July 2010 and early meetings conducted by the author as she started her jobs as PSI Coordinator Indonesia since September 1999.

[7] The source is from library of ILO—Jakarta Office

[8] Ibid

[9] PGRI (Persatuan Guru Republik Indonesia): Indonesian Teacher Association

[10] Ibid

[11] SP PLN: Serika Pekerja Perusahaan Listrik Negara (State Own-Enterprises Electricity Workers Union)

SP PJB: Serikat Pekerja Pembangkit Jawa dan Bali (Jawa and Bali Generator Workers Union)

PP Indonesia Power: Persatuan Pegawai Indonesia Power (Indonesia Power Employees Association)

SP Angkasa Pura 1: Serikat Pekerja Angkasa Pura 1 (Angkasa Pura 1 Airports Workers Union)

SP PDAM Jakarta = Serikat Pekerja Perusahaan Daerah Air Minum Jakarta (Jakarta Municipal Water Supply Workers Union)

[12] FSP FARKES/R: Federasi Serikat Pekerja Farmasi dan Kesehatan/Reformasi (Pharmaceutical and Health Workers Union)

[13] Garuda Indonesia Flight Attendants Association, interviewed with her on 14th July 2010

[14] Indonesia Railway Workers Union

[15] Jakarta’ s State of the Art Container Terminal Workers Union

[16] Post Indonesia Workers Union

[17] ASPEK Indonesia : Asosiasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia (Indonesia Trade Unions Association)

[18] Interviewed on 14th July 2010

[19] Interview and meeting with Rekson Silaban as he was in Berlin, Germany on 16-20 May 2010 during DGB Congress.

[20] Interview on July 2, 2010


  1. Jose, V.A (1999). The Future of the Labour Movement: Some Observations on Developing Countries. Discussion Paper Labour and Society Program. DP/112/1999. Pp: 1-22. Geneva: International Labour Organization (International Institute for labour Studies)
  2. Bent, Edward Alan and Reeves, Zane. T (1978). Collective Bargaining in the Public Sector. USA: The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc
  3. Drake, Barbara (1920). Women in Trade Union. Re-published in 1984. London: Virago Press Limited
  4. Palmer, Susannah (2008). Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining: Indonesia Experience 2003-2008. Edited by Carmelo C. Noriel. International Labour Organization.
  5. Silaban, Rekson (2009). Repositioning of Labor Movement: Road Map for the Indonesian Labor Movement after Reformasi. Jakarta: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) Indonesia Office
  6. Metcalf, David (2003). Unions and Productivity Performance and Investment: International Evidence. In: International Handbook of Trade Unions, edited by Addison, T John and Schanbel, Claus. USA: Edward Elgar Publishing, Inc. PP. 118-171

NOTEThis article excerpted from my thesis and have been modified by 21 March 2011




One thought on “Indonesia: when public services workers unionized

  1. when public workers unionized, there are some effects,such as awareness of the rights at workplace but then we are ( BUMN ‘ s employees) facing new problem when there is dispute between union and management.There are many BUMN seems reluctant to apply labour law properly , even they violent this law,there is no punishment so far. But then, when we are doing tripartite with manpower ministry , the management mostly don’t pay much respect toward this mediation and if the management don’t fullfill the tripartite decision ,there are no any further action from manpower ministry cause management of BUMN is only obey to BUMN ministry.

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