Indonesia Calling

Australian maritime workers were the first to impose bans on Dutch ships during the Indonesian struggle for independence (1945-49) So began a long history of solidarity between Indonesian and Australian maritime unions. This special report examines the union relationship, the plight of maritime workers of our northern neighbour and a call from the newly elected chair of the ITF Asia Pacific region for renewed solidarity action


Australian maritime workers were the first to impose bans on Dutch ships during the Indonesian struggle for independence (1945-49) So began a long history of solidarity between Indonesian and Australian maritime unions.

This special report examines the union relationship, the plight of maritime workers of our northern neighbour and a call from the newly elected chair of the ITF Asia Pacific region for renewed solidarity action


Adang has worked on the Jakarta docks since 1962. Nothing much has changed. Ships come and ships go. When they come he gets paid to do the lashing work. If they don’t there’s no work and no pay. “It’s always been the same,” said Adang. “Low wages. Each shift we get 62,000 Rupiah (US$6.20). If there’s no ship, there’s no work and no money.

“I’m a day labourer,” he said. “It’s hard. Some weeks, there are two ships. Some weeks there’s none. There’s no other work. Those of us with motorbikes use them as taxis to earn enough to get by. Otherwise we’re unemployed. We get some health cover. But if we have to get treatment we usually only get a portion back – about half. I have two wives and seven children.”

“There’s not enough to pay for my kids’ school,” said Muchtar who’s worked at Tanjung Priok since 1972 when he was 19. ‘There’s not even really enough for food.”

It’s not that there’s no union covering Indonesia’s estimated two million dockworkers in its 600 ports and nine container terminals. There’s too many – five at Tanjung Priok terminal alone. And only two are unions as we know them.

Towering above Adang and Muchtar on the portainer cranes are workers who earn around Rupiah 5 million (US$500) a month. Employed by the Hutchinson/government joint ventures TPK Koja and adjoining Jakarta International Container Terminal, they are the only ITF affiliated unions and they’re not afraid to down tools if necessary.

Two years ago ITF Indonesia co-ordinator Hanafi Rustandi took the microphone at a ceremony to mark May Day (and a breakdown in contract negotiations). “Down your tools”, he shouted.


“All activities at the port were halted,” Jakarta Post reported. “Thousands of workers bowed their heads while ships, container cranes and trucks switched on their headlamps and blew their horns.”

“The strike lasted just 10 minutes but it has been effective,” said Hanafi. “We may have lost 10 minutes but our employers and the government suffered billions of rupiah in losses. Some may call it sabotage but we have the right to strike and it is part of our bargaining power.”


After the launch of the ITFs campaign against “ports of convenience” (POCs) in 2006, dockers’ unions focused on achieving global minimum standards for labour rights, health and safety worldwide.

MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin, as chair of the ITF dockers section has led the ITF initiative with section secretary Frank Leys.

The ITF dockers section secretariat organised a series of regional strategy seminars including Jakarta. National officers Jim Tannock and Rick Newlyn attended meetings in Jakarta in 2006 and 2008. The regional seminars identified five key themes for campaigning – casualisation, competition, Global Network Terminal (GNT) operators, privatisation and trade union rights.

“The Maritime Union really helped start reforming the Indonesian ports,” said Hanafi. “The 2006 seminar came a year after the Jakarta terminal unions formed and they all attended the seminar. Jim gave examples of how the MUA organizes and its struggles. He inspired the port union delegates to take a stand against the company in the collective agreement negotiations at the Jakarta terminals that were about to get under way. As a result the workers were prepared to take action and got a good outcome.”

“We went on strike in order to address our demands,” said TPK Koja Secretary Irwan Setiabudi. “We won. The ITF fully support our strike and demands. Solidarity from other countries came to my union through the ITF. Their support made us confident to strike. We struck for two hours. But this May we just threatened to strike and they agreed to our demands.”

This time the company promised to deliver by the year’s end. For now they are happy.

Irwan Setiabudi says it’s the solidarity of his members which has been the key to the union’s success. That and union training. The union was formed in 1999. They now earn double. As well as the wage they get a five per cent share in profit around Christmas – up from three per cent. That’s five per cent of Rupiah 100 billion.

“Our members will get 25 million Rupiah – $2,500 each – for Christmas,” he said. “Maybe we could share it with the other workers.”


Rod Pickette, MUA also worked with the ITF in the development of a POC database, providing information, statistics and network links that could be applied to dockers organising and campaigning initiatives all around the world, contributing financial and other resources.

The ITF hopes the POC database helps affiliates gain a better understanding of the GNTs that operate terminals. Where an affiliate is negotiating or having problems with a particular GNT, the database will indicate what other transport and/or logistics operations the company is involved in and where. It will show their global ranking, their global throughput; and in what ports their terminals operate – all potentially vital information to back up a trade union campaign.

Indonesia has not been hit hard by the recession and now boasts a five per cent growth rate according to the Jakarta press. But Business Indonesia also reports that growth has not translated into improvement of unemployment and poverty for the vast majority of workers.


“Our wages are different. Why must they be different? We do the same work,” said Tulis, a truck driver at the terminal. “I understand if there is a bit of difference, but not like this. US$200 a month is not enough for driving heavy equipment.”


“Maybe. As long as it serves the workers,” said Tulis. “Some unions just look for their own profit and leave us behind.”

John Wood of the ITF is based in Jakarta to work on the Ports of Convenience campaign. But he is up against an entrenched system. Even dealing with the ITF affiliate JICTU is complex. Its last two union leaders have since been recruited into management.

An estimated two million casual port workers are covered by the national dockworkers union SBMI and the ITF is working to modernise the union. Wages are supposed to be based on a share of the profits but little is distributed. SBTKBM is the Jakarta union covering Adang and Muchtar.

“We are the cheapest dock workers in the world,” said Secretary General Yusron Effendi. “We have yet to succeed in improving the standard of the workers. We must struggle to improve the status of workers first. But it is hard to strike because there are four unions, not one.”

“All workers join the union,” he said. “The problem is we have to struggle to improve our status. I can drive a crane. But I don’t get the opportunity. The work should be based on skills.”

If the plight of Adang and Muchtar is woeful, that of the wharf labourers at the traditional port, Sunda Kelapa, takes us back a century to the Hungry Mile.

See them necking 20 kilo bags of cement along a narrow wooden plank onto the wooden sailing vessels that ply the coast and inter-island trade. They tell us they are paid 8,500 Rupiah (US85 cents) per tonne.

“The government and employers can no longer adopt a cheap labour policy to attract foreign investors as it has in the past,” Hanafi told the local press.

“It would be better for the government to eliminate rampant corruption and red tape in bureaucracy, revise the investment and tax laws, repair damaged infrastructure and enforce the law to provide certainty for workers.”

HANAFI RUSTANDI, The newly elected chair of the ITF Asia Pacific region calls for Australia to head a regional workers’ delegation to confront local governments and demand minimum wages for transport workers.

"The poor live off the refuse of the rich. Our people are so poor they live like rats, searching for food wherever they can find it. Whole communities live on the tips recycling plastic etc. They search for a living off the vilest places, the tips, the filthy canals, and the open sewers.

"We need an MUA delegation here, not just leaders, but rank and file workers. We will arrange meetings. We will show them the wharves. We’ll get the media in. Dock work is the same whether it is in Indonesia or Australia, but the wages are not the same.

"Australians can say I get $6,000 a month; Indonesians get $60 a month. They can shame the government and make them listen. Why should there be such a big gap? They have the same employer. Indonesian seafarers working the coastal trade are only getting $200 a month.

"Australia helped us get our independence. Our struggles have always been close. Those fighting for Indonesian independence were the workers, Indonesian workers and Australian workers, maritime workers who banned Dutch arms being shipped out of Sydney.

"We must help each other and work together. "

F or Indonesia’s estimated 2.5 million fishermen there’s not a lot of choice. You go and get work on a foreign fishing vessel where you may have to work 24-hour shifts, endure abuse and lose half your pay to manning agents. Or you stay close to home, work on traditional fishing vessels that make up 95 per cent of the industry and find you have no protection or basic wage, training standards or safety..."

New film about the making of the film about Australian wharfies and seafarers fight for Indonesian independence. p37

FLICKR Jakarta Docks 09 Photo Gallery