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Reeboks, Rappers And Losers

Trade Unions
Human Rights

new internationalist
issue 244 - June 1993

Reeboks, rappers and losers
Reeboks, rappers
and losers
Warning: your training shoes may have
already damaged someone else’s health.

Peter Hitchings reports on the Indonesian roots
of the world’s favourite running shoes.

The last time you slipped into a pair of Nike or Reebok running shoes, you probably didn’t give a thought to who manufactured them or where. But it’s worth wondering...

Almost certainly they came from Indonesia. The workers of ‘Jabotabek’ there make all sorts of luxury goods for Western markets: Nike, Reebok and Adidas trainers, Levi Strauss jeans and Calvin Klein Y-fronts.

Jabotabek embraces the city of Jakarta and the hinterland of Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi. It is Indonesia’s ‘showcase’ industrial complex, where South Korean and Taiwanese companies use cheap Indonesian labour to manufacture shoes, shirts and textiles under licence to the Western label-owners who buy back the semi-finished products, slap on a massively marked up price, and hawk them to joggers, rappers and GQ readers in European and North American markets.

This may seem a happy image of incipient Third World capitalism but a closer look shows the underbelly of one of the world’s nastiest regimes, whose industrial-relations policy makes England’s during the Tolpuddle massacre seem almost benign.

And joggers through Central Park and rappers down the Champs Elysées might reflect on the amount it actually costs to make their $130 trainers: ‘a few cents’, says a British industrial-relations specialist who recently toured Jabotabek.

In Indonesia, the ‘legal minimum wage’ is $1.27 a day, the second lowest in Asia after Bangladesh. A survey of 12,000 factories in Tangerang last year revealed that less than 40 per cent of employers even bothered to pay the minimum wage.

‘Shoe-factory workers run amok’ ran the headline in the Indonesian daily Merdeka last September, referring to 8,000 workers who went on strike in protest at their abysmal conditions. It was one of more than 30 strike actions in one district of Java during the last three months of 1992, involving nearly 50,000 factory workers and bringing to 130 the number of major strikes in Indonesia last year.

At the centre of the workers’ complaint is decent wages. The $1.27 minimum is still well below that stipulated under Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution, which states that every citizen has the right to demand the basic needs for survival. Low wages have brought acute social deprivation: 80 per cent of Indonesian female workers, who make up the vast majority of textile labour, are malnourished, according to the International Labour Office (ILO).

But there’s more to it than wage levels: in many factories wages are cut if employees go to the toilet unauthorized, pregnancy results in instant dismissal, and holidays are allocated at the discretion of employers in whose ears the words ‘maternity leave’ and ‘sick leave’ sound like the language of another planet.

Content to abuse basic human dignity for as long as they can get away with it, Indonesian employers usually deduct 20 per cent of a worker’s salary when she or he is absent. A normal working week is more than 50 hours, with no overtime pay, and the minimum international standards for health and safety are ignored.

Such contempt for humanity reflects the traditional Indonesian attitude to workers who, according to an editorial in the Jakarta Post1, are ‘a docile people who respect their elders and leaders... easily trainable to do manual jobs. (The) puzzling question is... how the workers... could turn into a highly agitated and militant mob.’

Astonishing though it may seem to this leader-writer, inhuman conditions often breed discontent and well-organized resistance. But workers’ resistance is being met with brutal suppression. Workers who complain about their conditions are dismissed; those who dare to organize collective action are rounded up and interrogated, often beaten and electrocuted by the military – and then dismissed.

The key precondition for business success in Indonesia is having a chum in the military, since Ministerial Decree 342 (1985) authorizes the military to intervene in industrial disputes. ‘Employers in Indonesia who don’t have a relationship with the military are finished,’ explains Teten Masduki, a prominent Indonesian labour representative who was himself interrogated by the military for striking.


State of the
world’s workers

Trade unionists are slaughtered with impunity in Colombia; Malawi’s life president Hastings Kamuzu Banda imprisons anyone suspected of trade-union activity; the death by assassination of leading trade unionists in South Africa is increasing sharply.

These facts come from the latest survey of trade-union rights published by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. They represent the tiniest tip of the iceberg: during 1992 the world moved decisively backwards in terms of the rights – human and economic – of employees.

[image, unknown] In the Americas the ICFTU catalogues a disturbing pattern of abuse, intimidation, torture and extra-judicial execution of trade unionists. Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala and Haiti were by far the worst offenders.

[image, unknown] In Africa many countries pursued a brutal and relentless campaign of terror against trade unionists; assassinations were common, especially in South Africa, where violence intensified in the industrial heartland of the Transvaal.

[image, unknown] In Asia the cost of economic growth continued to be the abuse of basic human dignity on the factory floor, especially among the new ‘dragon economies’. China subjected countless trade unionists to torture in detention – and arrested three for holding a commemoration ceremony.

[image, unknown] In most countries of the Middle East trade unions were scarcely imaginable, let alone recognized.

[image, unknown] In Europe basic workers’ rights were further curtailed. In Greece the right to collective bargaining by state employees was suspended; in Germany the right to strike continued to be denied by law to civil-service employees; while in the Vatican the Administration refused even to recognize the Vatican Association of Lay Workers.

Employers had a good year, despite the recession.

1 Survey of Trade Union Rights (May 1993), International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Rue Montagne Aux Herbes Potagéres 37-41, B-1000 Brussels, Belgium.

When 14,000 workers from Gajah Tunggal, a truck-and-tyre company, went on strike in August 1992, not only the local police and the district military came to the factory, but also the army combat unit, cavalry, and Jakarta Metropolitan Command.

A year earlier 8,500 of the 9,250 female staff employed by Great River, a Korean/Indonesian textile company, went on strike against pitiful wages, 13-hour days, and the practice of docking one-fifth of wages for going to the toilet without authorization. The women’s job involved stitching Calvin Klein and Triumph jackets and underwear; these may have made useful surrender flags but little else in the face of the massed military regiments. As it was, 10 of the ringleaders were harassed, interrogated, and dismissed. One woman was heard to ask: ‘Why can’t we have decent wages when each jacket we produce costs $425 in European markets?’

Sacked workers’ names are entered on a blacklist which is circulated among employers, removing any chance of their getting another job. The interrogation of ringleaders may last only six hours, but a lot can be done to a human being in six hours, explains Amnesty International’s Indonesia researcher.

‘They are put under extreme pressure to say whether they have links with political organizations, to fill out questionnaires about their families and relatives, to give details of their background, their attitude to the state and constitution... The interrogators routinely beat people up; electric shocks are very common, and are used especially on people belonging to political organizations opposed to the Government.’

‘Often,’ he adds, ‘the interrogators simply lay a revolver on the desk, or put it against the victim’s head, shouting “you’re nothing... just speak!”’

Security is so tight that factories producing Western goods look like military compounds, constantly under surveillance by the Army.

The Suharto regime which came to power in 1965 still appears to suspect reds under the bed, drawing no comfort from the possibility that Indonesia’s military may have already rounded up, tortured and eliminated the last of the archipelago’s Communist bogeypeople. ‘All that remains of the Indonesian Communist Party are pockets of old people who meet quietly in their twos and threes,’ says a human-rights worker in Indonesia (who prefers not to be named).

The only recognized ‘union’ in Indonesia is the state-run SPSI (Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia), whose representatives on the factory floor genuinely try to voice workers’ complaints, but find they are overruled by their seniors. By an astonishing coincidence the chair of the SPSI, Imam Sudarwo, is a large textile industrialist, while the new Minister of Manpower, Abdul Latief, owns one of Indonesia’s biggest supermarket chains. Between them they do a nifty double (triple?) act of dancing between the military, employers and workers, urging employers on the one hand to pay, and workers on the other to accept, the minimum wage, the level of which they set.

Despite Indonesia’s ratification of ILO Convention 98 – affirming workers’ right to collective action – the country’s leaders cock a snook at foreign governments who condemn its practices. Indonesia, after all, is cosily patronized by Western multinationals.

This display of indifference is not surprising in the light of what happened after Indonesia’s massacre of thousands of East Timorese at Dili in 1991.2 The Canadian and Dutch governments stopped all aid to Indonesia in protest, at which point the Inter-governmental Group on Indonesia was reformed (minus the Dutch) and actually increased aid from about $4 billion in 1992 to $5.2 billion in 1993. The British were very keen not to offend, while Australia, the one country which has contradicted the UN by recognizing East Timor as part of Indonesia (helped by oil and natural gas discoveries in the Timor Sea), mouthed platitudes about it not being appropriate to condemn Indonesia in public...

The Clinton Administration isn’t so chirpy about these developments. The US-based human-rights group Asia Watch asked the US Trade Representative last June to review labour rights and practices in Indonesia. Under US law the President could end preferential trade agreements with a country (like Indonesia) which is ‘not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights’ – including freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and freedom from forced labour.

In November 1992 the Indonesian Government submitted a 170-page response, drawn up by US law firm White and Case, and sent a top-level delegation to Washington to protest against the petitions.

President Clinton was to announce his decision in April 1993 but still had not done so as the NI went to press. According to Asia Watch, ‘if benefits are cut as a result, the annual cost to Indonesia of the rise in tariffs on Indonesian exports coming into the US will be about $400 million’.

Meanwhile worldwide demand for trainers is at an all-time high. The London-based Indonesia Human Rights Campaign says Nike has authorized four South Korean joint-venture factories in Jakarta and West Java. Workers in one, PT Astra Doo Yang, receive wages below the national minimum of $1.27 a day.

But what on earth are we to make of Reebok, one of the world’s largest shoe-makers, which similarly contracts production from Indonesian factories? Fernando de Araujo, the East Timorese human-rights campaigner who was tried and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment in Jakarta for ‘subversion’, recently received an award... from the Reebok Human Rights Programme.

Peter Hitchings is an Australian financial journalist.

1 Jakarta Post 14 November 1992.
2 Indonesia-East Timor: The Suppression of Dissent, Amnesty International 1992.

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New Internationalist issue 244 magazine cover This article is from the June 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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