Friday, May 2, 2008

Indonesians protest Jakarta's response to globalization

This May Day, thousands of Indonesian workers took to the streets of Jakarta to protest.

"Outsourcing is modern slavery" read the caption to a drawing of an Indonesian worker chained on a leash (second photo, top right). Angry protesters demanded that Jakarta scrap a recent outsourcing law. In order to stay competitive internationally, Jakarta mandated that companies could hire workers as contractors or temps -- without offering them the legal protections accorded actual employees under Indonesian law -- for up to two years. Hence, a company's"outsourced" labourers are typically not eligible for medical or other benefits. And their ranks are growing.

Also on the minds of protesters was the rising cost of food. A yellow sign with a long list of demands read:
#1. The staple food prices should go down and subsidies should be given to people.
#2. Stop PHK. Stop firing people without consent and increase wages."
Another sign (top right photo) reads:
Rice expensive, karosine gone, education expensive, health expensive, wages low. Meanwhile salaries of people in parliament have gone up and up.
Some five thousand protesters filed down the main avenue past government buildings. On one side of the boulevard people dressed in blue carried flags, on the other, a much larger group wore red.

Behind the main blue and red crowds tagged other groups.

A large number of journalists marched. They were demanding that media pay journalists a living wage of $400/month. (That's about as much as an beginning secretary earns at a good Jakarta company). When journalists are payed low salaries, some may be tempted to supplement their income with "envelopes" from the politicians and business leaders they write about. These bribes represent a threat not only to journalism, but to Indonesia's civil society.

I saw a small group of Indonesian anarchists dressed in black, carrying a banner. Printed partly in English, their poster urged people to "Smash capitalism! Smash the state!" The Indonesian text read: "You don't need your boss, your boss needs you."

I spoke with so-called "outsourced labourers" from an oil company, a food factory, and a rubber plant. Their wages ranged from $200/month for the man who drove an oil tanker truck, to just $70/month for the food worker (if you take deductions into account, this man's take home pay amounts to less than minimum wage). All were protesting the lack of benefits and security. The rubber factory worker (bottom right photo) was angry about working conditions.

The march terminated at the Presidential Palace where angry speakers denounced capitalism, imperialism, and the United States.

"Captitalism!" shouted a speaker standing on a truck before the palace gates.

"Destroy it!" replied the croud.

"Imperialism!" he said.

"Destroy it!" they replied.

My videos of the demonstration

In the first video, Indonesian protesters march and sing. In the second, they rally in front of the Presidential Palace.

The gathering storm

Overall, the protest was orderly and peaceful; it was well attended and most people were cheerful. Yet there is a clear sense on the streets of the Indonesian capital today that things are not improving; a perception that corruption has spread and grown; that leading politicians are only interested in serving themselves, playing a globalization game in which their their own personal interests top the national agenda.

The outsourcing law reminds Indonesians that in the scheme of global capitalism, the Indonesian worker is like any other commodity. To many of those assembled in downtown Jakarta, this looks like "modern slavery."

The leaders of the protest rally screamed loudest about outside forces. The usual suspects were named: capitalism, America, imperialism, globalization. One sign urged people to "Fight against Neoliberal." Whoever he is.

The Indonesians man on the street will readily point his outstretched thumb towards the Presidential Palace. His words of condemnation will encompass the whole of Indonesian politics.

Update: Jakarta Post indicates 18,000 turned out for the demonstrations.

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