All-Indonesia Labor Union Confederation President Elly Rosita Silaban: It’s As If We Were Side-stepped
After waiting for two days on tenterhooks, the President of the All-Indonesia Labor Union Confederation (KSBSI) Elly Rosita Silaban obtained the good news from the Merdeka Palace on Friday, April 24.
THAT day, President Joko Widodo announced the government and the House of Representatives (DPR) had agreed to postpone deliberations on the Job Creation Bill related to the cluster dealing in labor issues.
To Elly, 49, Jokowi’s decision was an answer to the demands she had voiced out together with the President of the All-Indonesia Workers Union Confederation (KSPSI) Andi Gani Nena Wea, and the President of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions (KSPI) Said Iqbal. Jokowi invited the three labor unionists to the Palace two days prior, to get their inputs regarding the Job Creation Omnibus Bill. In the closed meeting which lasted about one hour, Jokowi was only accompanied by State Secretary Minister Pratikno.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Elly and her two colleagues urged Jokowi to halt the discussion on the bill they assessed was detrimental to the labor force. “Do not deliberate on it just now. Let us first combat Covid-19. After that, take the Job Creation Bill, and involve us from the outset,” said Elly in a special interview with Tempo, on Monday, April 27.
According to Elly, the alliance of laborers in the Indonesian Labor Workers Council had at first planned a national work strike to protest the Job Creation Bill for Thursday, April 30. As many as 80,000 laborers were at the ready to march the main thoroughfares of Jakarta. With the postponement of deliberations to the bill, the mass rally planned for the day before International Labor Day, known as May Day, was cancelled.
Elly received Tempo reporter, Mahardika Satria Hadi, in her office. For over two hours, this mother of two who has been a labor activist since 1994 described at length their reasons for rejecting the Job Creation Bill, her meeting with Jokowi, up to her relationship with other labor organizations. This first female to head a labor union in Indonesia also criticized the Pre-Employment Card she deemed as off-target.
What demands did you convey to President Jokowi?
We conveyed to him our grievances about the Job Creation omnibus law. We said the bill’s substance should not be discussed right now, that we should first really prioritize combating Covid-19. Postpone the deliberations, rather than see us do a mass rally on April 30, because such an act would endanger people’s lives (for rallying in the midst of a pandemic). After that, take the Job Creation Bill back, and involve us from the outset. Our last request, take out the cluster in the omnibus law that governs labor issues. Let it stand as a separate law, since Law No. 13/2003 on labor issues is still superior in comparison.
Did you also convey the plan for a national work strike?
Before the meeting adjourned, I told the President, “Pak, don’t take too long making the announcement. For, if you make an announcement after April 30, that would mean more victims would have fallen, and we would have gone down to the streets on April 30, in the middle of the fasting month.” We assessed the House of Representatives (DPR) would be better for monitoring the Rp405.1 trillion fund allocated for handling Covid-19. How are allocations and supervision carried out, are the targets appropriate, is any portion of the money being embezzled? This is not only the business of captains of industry and the government, but also the business of labor unions. What is the fate of laborers sent home, their Idul Fitri bonuses unpaid, or given in installments. Why are these things not being taken care of? We can go back to the omnibus law when things have gone back to normal.
What was the President’s response?
Well, he reacted normally. The President said this, “It was said the laborers were involved (in the discussions). That’s the report that came back to me.” Then Andi Ghani replied, “We were not roped in for involvement. They were only bandying about our names.” I felt sorry, for in that instance, he (Jokowi) could only listen more intently to what we had to say.
Had the government in fact planned to postpone deliberations on the Job Creation Bill due to Covid-19?
No. All this while, Pak Jokowi thought the labor unions had been involved in the discussions. I conveyed that, yes, in virtual meetings (with the DPR) the discussions were open for us. But when we came in and tried to intervene, we were immediately blocked off. This happened several times in the discussions with the DPR. Yet they continued saying it was open for the public.
How involved has the labor unions been in the Job Creation Bill deliberations?
In truth, we had begun rejecting it since last year, but the labor unions only began making moves at the beginning of the year. We began actions to reject the omnibus law in January. At the time it wasn’t yet specifically the Job Creation Bill. We thought, if the government noticed the rejection by the labor unions, for sure the bill would have to be reviewed, and could not be continued. We are now an advanced country; why then are laborers still crying out about basic rights? It simply does not make any sense.
What was the government’s reaction to the labor action at the time?
We noted our demands in actions were not really being noticed and showed no result. Of course at the time who would have thought there would be Covid-19. Originally we planned to continue protesting, because the government announced the omnibus law would be completed within 100 working days. One hundred working days to deliberate 11 clusters comprising 79 laws of 15 chapters and 174 articles, without involving the laborers? Really, what was the aim? Then came an invitation for us from the coordinating ministry for the economy, implying they wished to discuss the draft to the omnibus law.
KSBSI President Elly Rosita Silaban in a meeting with President Joko Widodo, on April 22./special photo
How many representatives of the labor and worker unions were invited?
I saw in the list 23 federations and confederations. At first, we aimed to come in and discuss the substance of the law. It turned out they were still dividing us into clusters, who would be in the job termination cluster, who in the outsourcing team. That was all. Then came the Coordinating Minister for the Economy Decree No. 121/2020 which listed all our names attending that meeting as team members. In the beginning we accepted it in good faith. But immediately after, the draft was sent directly to the DPR on February 12. It felt like we were being side-stepped, right? How on earth would we be able to intervene into the substance of the law? So, we started becoming angry and pulled our names off the list.
Why the decision to withdraw from the draft deliberation team?
We felt we were being gypped. We did not want to be in a team simply to legitimize things, while the actual draft had already gone to the DPR. In our view, since it was already in the hands of the DPR, there no longer was room for the labor unions. Yet, I remember specifically Pak Jokowi’s words, if I’m not mistaken on December 10, 2019, in which he said the bill would be in consultation with the labor and worker unions. This was exactly why at the meeting I told him, “Pak Jokowi, did you not notice the fracas that occurred?” We made a lot of noise rejecting the bill, and the President instead issued a presidential letter about the omnibus law.
What is the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic to advocacy efforts of the labor groups?
At first we did not think it would hit us. We had already planned a series of actions. Then we faced a wave of Job terminations. This fragmented our focus. But we had to go back to the Job Creation Bill. To that end, we planned the national work strike. Originally it was for April 22, but we postponed it because large-scale social restrictions were in place. In the end we decided for April 30, despite it being smack in the middle of the fasting month.
How was it the President finally invited you to the Palace?
The Palace protocol contacted me on April 21 after sundown. I was requested to meet with the President the next day at 1pm. In the meeting, there was only myself, Andi Ghani, and Said Iqbal. Pak Jokowi was accompanied by State Secretary Minister Pratikno. We sat facing each other in a closed meeting. There was no press.
What was the President’s reactions when the three of you gave your inputs?
Once in awhile he made notes while saying, “Yes, that’s right, yes, right.” When we told him the labor unions were not invited to be involved in the deliberations for the Job Creation Bill, he looked agitated, his smile suddenly disappeared, and he suddenly sat back in his chair.
Is it true other labor unions are dissatisfied with the President’s decision to postpone deliberations on the Job Creation Bill?
The Job Creation Bill is rejected by all labor union elements. They cannot put their fate into the hands of a few unions and themselves do nothing. If we can only achieve a few things, well it needs to also be appreciated. But I am more worried that when the discussions re-start, we are not invited for involvement while we are busy managing our members suffering from Job termination.
What are the crucial points most highlighted by the labor sector in the Job Creation Bill?
In truth, not all the articles in the bill are bad. We are especially highlighting eight chapters, Iqbal nine chapters. The issue of outsourcing open for all levels and in all fields, the possibility of lifelong working contracts, the cancellation of minimum wage in each region. These are the worst items and are detrimental for laborer. There are also the issues of severance pay, foreign labor, and social welfare. But the most basic items are contracts, outsourcing, and the minimum wage.
The Job Creation Bill is getting alot of flak because it is deemed as accomodating investor interests. Your response?
I always stress that we are never against investment, but please create policies that are beneficial to all. There’s a study done that said the populace supports the Job Creation Bill because it is dedicated to opening up job opportunities. This is intriguing and at the same time makes us mad. It’s not we have no feelings towards those still unemployed, but please not at the expense of those already in job. Open up as many job opportuniies in the formal and informal sectors, but please do not sacrifice the laborers.
What do you think is the best solution?
The Labor Cluster in the bill is unnecessary. This is what we are rejecting. We are not against change, but this does not mean what has been achieved by laborers in Law No. 13/2003 on labor issues should be abolished. Surely this does not make any sense.
Is it true foreign investors are reluctant to enter Indonesia because the cost of labor is considered some of the highest in Southeast Asia?
No. It is because of convoluted bureaucracy and the many illegal money collections. Neither is our infrastructure complete. Labor wage in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore is higher than ours. Labor wages here come to around a little over US$270, higher than Cambodia, which is at US$170, and Bangladesh at US$100. Vietnam is slightly lower than us, at about US$250. Vietnam has only one labor union and it is pro-government. Much foreign investment flows into Vietnam because its government decides the labor wages.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, what have been the main grievances of our labor force?
Some have reported they were told to quit with a signature. I told them, do not allow yourselves to quit, let the company fire you so you get benefits. Some have been told to stay at home, and their salaries slashed by 50 percent. We have to advocate for these people, say, by asking them to send a request for a meeting with management to bargain about their salary cut. The most important thing is for them to continue working there. Some have been sent home, given 40 percent salary, but with no work commitments. I suggested they accept these terms, because they were not terminated. Nor is it only laborers. Many journalists have also suffered pay slashes.
What about payments of Idul Fitri bonuses?
Some laborers have complained their bonuses are not paid, or they get it in two installments. If that’s the case, then it can no longer be called a holiday bonus. The Idul Fitri bonus are savings from over a period of many months. This bonus does not disappear simply because there is Covid-19.
How many KSBSI members have had Job termination?
Per April 27, the count is 4,011 laborers suffered work termination, and 76,001 sent home. We have 10 federations throughout Indonesia, in mining, chemicals, health, banking, garment textiles, metals.
Laborers in which industry sectors are the most vulnerable to job termination?
The most vulnerable are laborers in the oil palm sector. Most are daily workers in Sumatra and Kalimantan. Say, they have worked since March 1, but til the end of the month they have not been paid. Other impacted sectors are transportation, hotels, electronic manufacturing, and the informal sector. The other 90 percent of manufacturing are still in production.
Why did the KSBSI together with the KSPI and the KSPSI revive the Indonesian Laborer Council (MPBI)?
We saw the threat the omnibus law was posing and needed a strong force in the labor sector. Prior, there had never been a matter as big as this. The number of laborers in unions registered at the ministry of labor number only 2.7 million people. The KSPSI only numbers 1 million, KSPI 800,000, and KSBSI 700,000. The three of us total some 2.5 million something. Thus we are slightly stronger, but this does not mean we can be cocky. We simply do not see our colleagues, the other unions, being serious about this. Being fiery on social media means nothing, because parliament is not reading those comments. If all the labor unions banded together to reject the omnibus law, I think we could kick a goal. In fact the entire bill can be annulled. If we do not unite, are not strong, what influence do we have?
Is it difficult for labor unions to unite without the MPBI?
Yes, that’s about it. If I’m not mistaken, right now there are 16 confederations and 117 federations and labor unions numbering some 2,000 entities. The main weakness of Indonesian labor unions are their strong egos. What’s so great about heading a labor union? It means absolutely nothing, because they are feeding off from their members. What’s to be cocky about if they are not taking care of their members? We have to understand, without bandying the strength of others, it is difficult for us to gain anything. Particularly because business people and the government see the high number of labor confederations as a device to achieve their own gains, because it boils down to only three people actually making a protest.
How intensive is your communication with Andi Ghani and Said Iqbal?
Regardless of their hustle and bustle in politics, and the differences in voting stance (in the presidential election), I have the highest respect for them in their position against the omnibus law. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, we had met scores of times purely to discuss rejecting the omnibus law.
ELLY ROSITA SILABAN
• Place and Date of Birth: North Tapanuli, North Sumatra, August 3, 1970 • Education: Undergraduate Degree in Economic Management, Adhy Niaga Institute of Economics, Bekasi (2007) • Career: Telkom Medan Cooperative Member (1990-1992), Management member of Domestic and Migrant Laborers - SBSI (1996-2000), Secretary SBSI Member Cooperative (1997-2002), Secretary SBSI Jakarta International Relations Department (2002-2007), General Chair Garment Textile Federation (2007-2015), Deputy President KSBSI (2015-2019), President KSBSI (2019-2023)
The government has put in place a Pre-Employment Card program for workers suffering because of Covid-19 impacts. So far, has it been effective?
The Pre-Employment Card allocation should not be exclusive. It should get concrete data from labor unions. There should also be easier access, not only for those youngsters adept in using the application. Not all laborers understand this, say, those working in factories. Some 1,499 of our members who accessed the app all failed the first and second rounds. According to the KSBSI team, the system is not easy to understand nor access for laborers. Thus, the Pre-Employment Card in this pandemic is in fact unnecessary. Yet, since April 16, more than 1.9 million people from the formal and informal sectors have suffered job termination.
Why would the Pre-Employment Card be uneccessary in this pandemic?
Remember it was designed before there was Covid-19. Some parties appreciate the initiative because the unemployed received a small amount of money for transportaion and to study. But that was then. Now look at it. If originally you planned to buy a clothing item, but there’s no rice, you’d need to buy rice first. People laid off from work need food cash even more. Who can study when they’re hungry? This is why laborers are less interested in getting training through the Pre-Employment Card. They only wish for cash and to get their daily basic needs to survive. Also, if they hone their skills now, there is no guarantee they will be reemployed again after a three-month course.
What is the solution if the pandemic continues for a long time and the waves of work termination continues?
The government still has to provide assistance for laborers, at the very least by providing daily basic needs. Probably, people no longer need money for luxury items, such as installment relief towards a mortgage. But daily basic needs have to be doled out to the appropriate people, and there should be supervision. The Covid-19 handling fund allocation totals Rp405.1 trilliion. That is no small amount, right?