IUF logo; clicking here returns you to the home page.
Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide

From ILO Seminar to Prison! Criminalizing the Fight for Decent Work in Indonesian Palm Oil

Posted to the IUF website 12-Jan-2006

Share this article.

On 29-31 August 2005, Robin Kimbi, Chairperson of the KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union, participated in an ILO Seminar on �Decent Work in Agriculture for Plantation Workers in Indonesia� in Medan, North Sumatra. Just two weeks later Kimbi and four other union officers were arrested during a strike at the PT Musim Mas plantation and refinery. (A month later a sixth union officer was arrested under similar charges.)

For the past four months Kimbi and the other five union officers have been held in Bangkinang Prison, facing charges under Article 170 of the Indonesian Criminal Code for "openly committing violence against persons or property" � a charge often used to repress demonstrations and strikes during the Suharto dictatorship. If convicted, the six union officers face up to five years and six months imprisonment.

While the six union officer were detained in Bangkinang Prison, PT Musim Mas management, in collusion with local authorities, dismissed 701 union members and deployed armed police and soldiers to forcibly evict them and over 1000 family members from plantation estate housing.

Kimbi�s road to prison began with the formation of a new union at PT Musim Mas plantation and refinery in Pelalawan, Riau Province on 13 October 2004 and registered with the Department of Manpower on 9 December 2004. Membership grew rapidly from 150 members to 1,183 members out of a total 2000 workers on the site, including 300 contract workers. From the outset the demand of the union was clear: working conditions at PT Musim Mas fell below minimum legal standards and the company was exploiting the precarious employment of contract workers.

In February 2005 the KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union raised these concerns with the local Department of Manpower and the management of PT Musim Mas. The only response was the dismissal of Kimbi two weeks later on 19 February. Local authorities supported PT Musim Mas� dismissal of Kimbi, which was formally approved by the Central Committee for the Settlement of Labor Disputes (P4P) for Riau Province on 28 July.

A month later Kimbi attended an ILO seminar on behalf of his 1,183 members and heard the results of an ILO study on plantation workers in Indonesia that described �the current deplorable situation with regard to decent work standards�. The objectives of this seminar included the following:

Specifically the ILO seminar addressed the failure of employers to respect workers� rights in accordance with the law � a situation that KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union was well aware of, having already raised the issue with the Department of Manpower and PT Musim Mas management for the previous six months. According to the ILO seminar Terms of Reference:

Legislation on standards in employment reaches only a minority of plantation workers in Indonesia. The enforcement of these standards pursuant to legislation depends on an enlightened labour force, who are aware of their rights and responsibilities, and an effective trade union movement, to monitor the enforcement. A lack of these gives many employers opportunity to evade their legislated obligations.

It was precisely this evasion of legislated obligations by PT Musim Mas that compelled KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union to consistently demand - from February to September 2005 - that PT Musim Mas respect and implement the rights of workers as required by law. The management not only refused to enter into open and fair negotiations with the union to resolve these problems, but attempted to establish its own union called �Serikat Pekerja PT Musim Mas (SPMM)� and created fake union membership cards that included members of the KAHUTINDO PT Musim Mas Union. Union members promptly issued written statements denouncing SPMM as a fake union and denied that they were members of SPMM.

When calls for negotiations to discuss Union demands resulted in the unfair dismissal of four union officers, including Kimbi, and the forced resignation of five other union officers, the Union turned to strike action in April and again in August, just three weeks before the ILO seminar in Medan. Despite ongoing union demands and strike action, the management of PT Musim Mas still refused to enter into negotiations.

The failure to implement legal minimum standards at PT Musim Mas and the violation of worker and trade union rights � including Kimbi�s unfair dismissal - demonstrated precisely the �decent work deficit� described by the ILO. In fact, everything Kimbi learned at the ILO seminar demonstrated that the his Union has every right to pursue their demands and it was even clearer that urgent action should be taken to overcome the �decent work deficit� at PT Musim Mas.

On 8 September 2005, the Union issued its demands to the management and announced its intention to strike. Management still refused to negotiate with the Union and instead colluded with local authorities to arrange for new workers to be recruited to replace union members. On the morning of the strike on 13 September, three trucks transported over 100 replacement workers into the plantation and refinery in a clear demonstration of the management�s determination to bust the union. On 14 September, a company truck drove into the picket line, injuring two union members who required hospitalization. Angered and deeply frustrated by this aggressive response by the management and outright collusion between PT Musim Mas and local authorities, dozens of union members acted spontaneously to pull down the factory gate � to protest the refusal of management to even acknowledge the Union�s demands. Using this damage to company property as an excuse to repress the strike and smash the union, police arrested six union officers and charged them under Article 170 of the Indonesian Criminal Code.

After four months detention and the threat of imprisonment of up to five years and six months if convicted, the plight of these six unionists sends a clear message to all palm oil plantation workers in Indonesia: those union activities necessary to overcome the �decent work deficit� and to achieve �decent work� in agriculture are effectively criminalized.