New Internationalist

End Piece

Issue 308

END PIECE

Reformasi or survival
Jeremy Seabrook reports from the Indonesian
eye of the global economic storm.

Indonesia after the departure of President Suharto is a turbulent, troubled place. Modest political freedoms have been conceded by Habibie, his successor, but these have taken place at a time of unimaginable economic hardship. Political parties are being formed – there are now over 60 of them. Workers have some rights – so long desired, so long suspended – to organize. But these small advances are in danger of being overtaken by unemployment, poverty and hunger in the wake of the devaluation of the rupiah by 80 per cent and the shrinking of the Indonesian economy this year by at least 15 per cent.

Jakarta has been made a restless, volatile place. There are daily demonstrations, incidents: students demand the ousting of Habibie, who is seen as the defender of the Suharto legacy; workers protest at price rises which make one meal a day a luxury; the unemployed desperately seek some work for themselves in the formal economy. In front of the Aryaduta Hotel hundreds of young men, working for money-changers, stop passing cars with the promise of 11,000 rupiah to the US dollar. Elsewhere, at traffic lights, boys in ragged jeans and coloured bandannas sing to cheap guitars while children stand in the swirling exhaust fumes offering comics, lighters, cigarettes, from nine in the morning till seven at night, for the sake of a dollar. At one point, jobs were disappearing in Jakarta at the rate of 15,000 a day. No industry is unaffected. Only the machines in the garment factories are still humming away making cheap clothing for export.

At one point, jobs were
disappearing in Jakarta at
the rate of 15,000 a day

It is impossible to exaggerate the plight of the workers. They live in tiny shared rooms in overbuilt slum areas, with bare plastic floor-coverings, hard mats for sleeping, a canvas zip-up wardrobe, a mirror, a lipstick and a tin of baby-powder the closest thing they have to luxury.

Wati, deserted by her husband, has sent her three children back to her West Java village to stay with her parents while she shares a room with two others, each paying two dollars a month out of a salary of twenty dollars, most of which must be sent to the village. Many have reduced their consumption of food to levels that are dangerously low in nutrients – a bowl of noodles and vegetables, some rice with chili and salt.

Even while work was assured, workers lived on the edge of subsistence, the factories guarded by the military to prevent them from combining or organizing in any way. This was the incentive for foreign capital. Taiwanese, Korean or Singaporean subcontractors were drawn here by abnormally low wages which made labour costs in Indonesia among the lowest in the world.

What happens to people who have entered the market economy only recently when they are ejected from it so brutally?

Some have returned to their villages, even though it was the inadequate livelihood there that drove them to the city in the first place. As a result, the crisis has been exported to the countryside. There has been sporadic unrest here, too, as the unemployed join with poor farmers and workers – a powerful coalition against the mismanagement of government which, despite the removal of Suharto, remains fundamentally unchanged.

The family still manages to absorb the poverty of its members who had scattered in search of a better life: Parlin, returned from the oil-palm plantation in Kalimantan to live with his brother in Jakarta; Susanto, depending on the wages his wife draws from the Nike factory; Razak, sacked from five different industries for organizing the workers; the extended family of Mayu, waiting each month for the money she sends from Singapore, where she is a maidservant; Waranto, subsidized by the friend with whom he shares a cell-like room in Ancol.

Economic disruption has a profound effect on all areas of social life. Triatni, a metal worker, is still unmarried although he is aged over 30. ‘I couldn’t survive with a wife,’ he says, ‘and could not afford to feed any children on the wage I am earning.’ Many young people cannot think of marrying. This suggests the destruction of hopes and expectations on a large scale, as well as creating an expanding sex industry, with all its attendant social and economic costs.

The great majority of young people who came to Jakarta to work were reluctant migrants in the first place. They would not have left the village if there had been a choice. As it is, many are reluctant to return or even to tell their families that the hope of a secure job has been disappointed and that they are barely surviving in the alien, unchosen environment of the city.

The situation is untenable: women sweep up the rice-grains along with the dust from the roadside near the warehouses; people scavenge among the waste from restaurants. A Government which could pursue dissenters to the remotest hiding-places in Indonesia cannot bring the necessities of life to its wanting people.

Is this by design, as some believe, so that the inevitable disorder can be used as a new excuse for the military to clamp down once more? Or will a revolt that is barely containable announce the beginning of true reform? The tension on the streets is tangible, as the desire for social and political change is undermined by a desperate struggle against hunger and destitution.

Jeremy Seabrook is a regular contributor to the NI.

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