Book Review: Workers and Intellectuals – NGOs, Trade Unions and the Indonesian Labour Movement

Posted: March 13, 2012 in Books, Economic Development, Indonesia
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English: Anti-WTO banner by Indonesian Migrant...

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Concerned rich-world folks must frequently look across to workers in other countries making their goods in miserable conditions and want to help. The problem is, charity can sometimes be disempowering and can hinder rather than help workers’ attempts to solve issues for themselves.

Unions, the entities closest to the action and run by people involved firsthand, are surely the best-placed vehicle to advance workers’ rights. So why is it that sweatshops remain prevalent in Indonesia after so many years?

Let’s start at the beginning

For many decades, the predominant strand of unionism in Indonesia were the corporatised official unions falling under the umbrella of the FBSI peak body (re-named SPSI in 1985). FBSI worked closely with the governing Golkar super-party and saw itself as ‘covering the field’. Due to their close relationship with the government their mission was also to assist the overall national development, even if that meant occasionally soft-peddling on workers’ concerns.

Yet it is not so easy to eradicate ideas. Other strains of unionism could not be kept away: firstly the more radical, more Marxist anti-employer strain, and secondly a limited-scope kind which wanted to remain focused on improving workers’ socio-economic interests without becoming entangled in politics and the compromises that inevitably follow.

Activists were not allowed to register unions with either of those objectives, so they instead formed NGOs to pursue their agenda. Initially the NGOs were formed for euphemistic purposes but as time went on they became more and more open about their labour focus.

The 30 year period of official corporatist policy and a historically sharp gap between the working and middle classes combined to create a lasting divide between working class unionists and middle-class intellectuals. The latter struggled perpetually with the problem that they did not ‘belong’ to the group on whose behalf they were acting:

There is no guarantee that [middle-class NGO workers] share workers interests, because feelings of pity are not a form of class-consciousness (p. 124)

On the other hand, some were far-sighted enough to embrace this and saw their involvement as being only temporarily necessary:

We have sought to prepare workers who are capable of leadership and critical thought, and who are independent and self-sufficient. We have tried to minimise the dependence of workers and worker organisations on the NGO that facilitates them (p. 125)

In 1998 Suharto resigned and Golkar’s hegemony came to an end. In the 14 years since, a gradual adjustment has been going on. Unions have had an easier time registering and operating without government intimidation. Both changes have also made NGOs less relevant; the unions of Indonesia are now beginning to stand on their own feet.

Today there are three national trade union confederations, confusingly named KSBSI, KSPI and KSPSI. Whilst the ensuing division and rivalry no doubt weakens the voices of the workers it could be lessened with effort. The current arrangement at least allows ideologically diverse activists to each operate in their own spheres.

So, if you want to assist the sweatshop workers of Indonesia, don’t simply send your money to Oxfam – help them to get their story out. Consumer awareness might not be the most potent weapon by itself but it greatly amplifies work being done on the factory floor.

Preconceptions erased

I found this book to be a real preconception-buster. My picture of Indonesian workers had been that they are generally non-union and that this is a state of affairs maintained by companies seeking to keep wages low and a government keen to attract foreign investors. In fact there are more prosaic reasons why few Indonesians are union members:

  • Firstly, most people (about 70%) work in the informal sector and are not paid a wage or salary that could form the basis for collective bargaining. Moreover only a minority of the other 30% are employed by overseas-owned interests;
  • Secondly, labour activists have had the advantage of overseas donors for a long time and do not seem to have adjusted to the need for revenue from member dues.

[T]he availability of large amounts of external funding from international sources made the difficult work of due collection unattractive, especially for large trade unions (p.171)

many trade unions have yet to establish effective and transparent internal processes or to raise enough money through dues to fund day-to-day union operations (p. 165)

Lastly I was surprised by the similarity to the flavors of unionism here in Australia, despite differences in culture, governance and economy: the corporatists (here: the ACTU-ALP under Hawke; there: the FBSI-Golkar), the Revisionists who want to focus on union objectives but not broader political ones, and the Marxists who are, well, the same everywhere.

The book is available on

Related posts:

Thought-provoking article about bridging the ‘solidarity divide’:


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