October 3, as many as 2.8 million workers in Indonesia staged an enormous strike, bringing the entire economy to a standstill from 9am until 6pm. It was the biggest mass action by labour in that country since 1965. The protests closed 5,000 factories in 12 provinces. In Jakarta alone, the machines at 800 factories went silent.
The strikers were demanding improved welfare and benefits. But the main issue was outsourcing. Yoris Raweyai, chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers’ Union (KSPI), said that strikers wanted to change a law which allows management to hire temporary workers on annual contracts with almost no benefits.
January this year, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that the practice was illegal. Said Iqbal, president of the KSPI, announced at the end of the strike that the government had agreed to facilitate talks with employers on this issue.
Indonesia–the fourth largest country in the world by population–has seen its economy growing steadily since a devastating slump in 1997-1998 sparked a revolution and the overthrow of the dictator Suharto. It was Suharto’s rise to power in 1965 and 1966 which shattered the Indonesian workers’ movement. Suharto’s rule was cemented by the slaughter of 500,000 activists and leftists.
Economic growth–an average of five per cent a year this century–has brought unemployment down from 12 per cent in 2005 to 6.8 per cent last year, giving confidence to the workers’ movement to make demands on employers.
But this economic growth has only marginally improved the lives of Indonesia’s workers. GDP per capita has increased 50 per cent since 1998, but still sits at just $1,200 a year, a fraction of the equivalent figure in Canada. In 1998 almost 50 million eked out a living on less than $1.25 a day. That figure has fallen to 18 million–but there remain a total of 46 million living on the only marginally better sum of $2 a day.
When revolution swept Indonesia in 1998, the power of mass action was revealed for all to see. Indonesia has a massive working class, 12 million in manufacturing alone. But numbers are not enough. A successful mass movement requires confidence, consciousness and organization, and in the first years after the revolution, it proved extremely difficult to rebuild these out of the wreckage left behind by Suharto.
October 3 was a message to the world, announcing progress in that rebuilding effort. The industrial revolutions sweeping Asia are producing not just new capitalisms, but new workers’ movements.