Unify or be buried by history

This article wrote by Rekson Silaban, President of KSBSI 2003 – 2007 and 2007 -2011. This article was published by Kompas on Saturday 30th April 2011. Please see the original version in Bahasa Indonesia “Bersatu atau Hilang Ditelan Sejarah”, click here


At first, it is the main proposition: what labour movement has achieved currently is not as much as its freedom. Indonesia unions have enjoyed adequate freedom.

At the same time, however, the struggle labour been gone through has yet managed to bring about qualitatively significant change for workers’ principal interests. This proposition, of course, will not set aside facts that there are still numerous of union busting elsewhere in this country.

Union busting does no longer take form of state policy which systematically has tried to blunt labour movement such in the New Order era case. Fight against union is partially done with various modus.

There are three standard parameters to see whether union benefits its members: (1) increase in number of collective bargaining agreement (CBA); (2) improvement in workers wages and welfare, including social security availability and guarantee; and (3) the extent to which union can exert its influence upon government and political institutions as well.

Concerning the first parameter, from data available, it turns out that during the last ten years number of CBA does not increase in spite of big freedom union has compared to pre-reformation times. The current number of CBAs is 11,000, same as one in New Order. In addition, number of company regulation is still exactly same, 44,000. Ideally, number of CBAs is bigger than number of company regulations 

The existence CBA will mean that union has memberships more than 50 percent of total workers in a company and is able to negotiate. Meanwhile, company regulation is created by employer because of small memberships or non existence of within-company union.

During some last years there has been an average 8-10 percent increase in worker wage. However, the hike is still lower compared to speed on inflation rate. World Bank Jakarta Office report (Dec 2010) reveals a 2 percen decrease in minimum wage during last 10 years after comparing total increase in minimum wage and total in inflation raise.

Social security coverage also grows insignificantly. While power in union side to influence public policy is little getting better but not optimal due to fragmented labour movement.

Is there any chance?

Is there any chance to make labour movement strong? Or, will union slowly but sure vanish out leaving a history because of its inability to transform its movement? The possibility is that there is a chance provided that the movement creates a new scenario instead of keeping on hold to the existing one. Five prerequisites for the new scenario.

First, “home for union” needs to be cleaned. By this it means that Indonesia unions must adjust themselves with universal principles of union which are democratic, independent, and representative. Those are standards set by ITUC for accepting affiliates.

Democratic means that union governance should be transparent, avoid power concentration, and run leaderships rotation. These are needed because of inability in some unions to hold regular meetings, constitution dysfunctional, and no change in leaderships until currently.

Independent means that union is not sacrificed for part of political party, government, business, religions, and particular ethnic interests.  Therefore, union must be financially independent so as not tempted to use the organization for personal interests of union activist or interests of political party.

Representative means that union must have adequate memberships so in International Labour Organization word it can claims it is the organization most representative. Representative union of course must have significant members, adequate dues, and strong legitimacy to represent labour voice.

Even though small unions are guaranteed and protected under the Indonesia law, with working areas as big as Indonesia, it is almost impossible for small unions to serve the needs of their members throughout the country. In times, these unions will disappear, abandoned by their constituents.

Secondly, a strong and common pledge- or manifesto-bound coalition of labour movements needs to be built up. After the home get “cleaned” by applying those three principles, minded unions need to unite to build a big coalition.

For what? Because unions are now in ruins due to continued split, only by joining together they can turn into a strong and survive union. To be strong, the coalition must formulize its pledge, programs, and aims into an official document. And, to get recognition the coalition needs to have minimally one million members. This figure of course is not so that high considering 8 million workers joining unions currently. By having big memberships, the coalition will have respect from its partners and opponents.

Thirdly, clear principles and ideology the coalition choose. After that, the coalition needs to use the chosen ideology as their tool to fight for labour. It shall not be, for example, a mean for politic struggle, ethnic, religion, race and gender interests.

Fourthly, improvement in activists’ capacity to formulize alternative policies. One of biggest criticisms against union: union is only considered of being able to react, demonstrate with no capacity to offer alternatives.

By this, labour movement at the end is equalized with s grumpy, uncompromised, stubborn, and stupid organization. These images must be changed through leveling up capacity in workers to do analysis– or self-research—based negotiation and lobby. Resource and fund will be easily accumulated if there is a coalition.

Fifthly, labour movement is social movement. Because economy globalization has created a link with other civil actors, union has to co-operate with social institutions such as green environment, anticorruption, and gender groups.

New map.

Those five prerequisites is a new recommended map to make labour movement function. Not only for labour needs, it is also for strengthening national economy pillars.

International experience has showed the presence of strong union will have been able to lower economy disparity in a country due to their unique roles in doing economic distributions through minimum wage, CBA, and profit sharing mechanisms in a company. Strong union also helps expanding social security coverage, protecting workers from exploitation, voicing interests of marginal groups (migrant workers, informal workers, housemaid, and daily-contract workers)

Union voice has been so far ignored because it is not considered as a collective voice to maximally overcome problems adversely affecting workers: from the rampant violations against outsourced and contract workers, certainty before and upholding of laws, to lack of seriousness in government side to stop impoverishment in Indonesia workers.

Union already strong and has millions of members of whom welfares needs to be guaranteed will neither hamper national economy and investment nor trigger political instability. (Rekson Silaban – Presiden KSBSI)


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