“Solidarity strengthens our fight,” the story of an Indonesian union leader

07 June 2020 14:53

By Khamid Istakhori, SERBUK General Secretary 

When Tajudin began working at the Guangdong Power Engineering Co Ltd, a Chinese construction company building the Sumsel 1 PLTU generator, in 2017, he and the other workers did not understand their rights as workers and the company never informed them. At the time, the workers had no contracts, their wages were below the legal minimum, overtime wages were not paid and there were no legal social protection payments.  

"We were underpaid, with companies often cutting our wages. Our rights were not recognised and protected,” Tajudin said. He said that the company can lay off workers without any justifiable reason and make wage deductions from workers who were only 5 minutes late to work.

Tajudin said that workers also received inadequate personal protective equipment and there were many work accidents. "If we have a work accident we get double losses. We pay for our own hospital bills and our wages are cut as long as we are sick and not working," he said.

Tajudin's leadership was tested when some of his fellow workers were fired and their wages were not paid. The workers went on strike for several hours at the PLTU site and the company responded by inviting representatives of the workers to negotiate. Eventually, the company fulfilled the workers' demands by canceling layoffs and paying their wages. 

"That small victory made us think hard,” Tajudin said. “It turns out that if we are united, there is a way for change."

Armed with their experience of striking, and communicating with several unions in the Muara Enim area, the workers decided to form a union. Their confidence grew in October 2019 when their union was formally registered at the Muara Enim Manpower Office.

Tajudin was elected chairperson of the union at PT. Guangdong Power Engineering Co Ltd. He is now the leader of workers who are helping build a 35,000-megawatt multi-site electricity mega-project, launched by Indonesian President Joko Widodo. 

After consolidating and recruiting members, the union sought negotiations with PT Guangdong, demanding workers’ legal rights under Indonesian law, including fair employment contracts, minimum wages, overtime pay, social protection for all workers and corporate responsibility for work accidents. 

After their repeated proposals to negotiate were turned down, the union finally decided to strike, lasting more than two weeks from 9 to 23 March this year, ending when the union and company finally signed an agreement at the Muara Enim Parliament Building. 

However, the very next day, coinciding with the regional government implementing a COVID-19 health quarantine, the company refused to pay the workers.

"The company has broken the rules again. Due to the lockdown, we are prohibited from working, but the company used it as an excuse not to pay our wages."

The union now has the support of regional authorities, including the Muara Enim District Head, who has given the company a two-week deadline to resolve the labour problems (concluding on 2 June). 

Tajudin noted that the most important lesson he has learned was the power of solidarity of all those involved in the struggle. 

“SERBUK has provided financial support to members who joined the strike efforts through online petitions, mass mobilisation and fundraising. From BWI, we have received broad support from affiliates in Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand,  Philippines and even support from construction worker unions as far as Kyrgyzstan," Tajudin said. 

"Today we find strength. Today we find solidarity. With working class solidarity, we strengthen our fight," said Tajudin.