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Military harasses Timorese workers after strike at Nike plant

Labor Alerts/Labor News - June 18, 1997

[This information was passed along to Campaign for Labor Rights by the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), in North America, which received it from East Timor Independence, in New Zealand. This report also is based on information provided by Jeff Ballinger, of Press for Change, and Max Surjadinata, in New York.]


In late April, workers from the PT Hardaya Aneka Shoes Industry (HASI) – a Nike contractor in Tangerang, Indonesia – went on strike twice in one week when workers felt they were being cheated out of a 20 cent/day raise in the minimum wage. The HASI factory owners (along with other Nike contractors in Indonesia) had asked the government for permission not to pay the new wage, claiming that the extra 20 cents would be a financial hardship on the company. Although HASI management eventually agreed to pay the new minimum wage, they took away a $7.75 monthly premium given to workers with steady attendance. In effect, they were taking back with one hand what they were giving with the other.

On April 22, 10,000 of the 13,000 workers at PT HASI marched from the plant in Tangerang on Jakarta's outskirts to the district parliament to demand their wage increase. The early morning march, which snarled traffic in the industrial area in West Java province, was watched closely by security forces but there was no violence.

By April 23, a tentative agreement had been reached, with the factory owners agreeing to pay the new minimum wage and to restore most of the bonus at a lower level of $6.88 a month. However, workers remained distrustful whether the factory would honor the agreement and subsequently struck again, on April 25. The second strike involved destruction of factory property. Reports vary as to whether – as tends to be the case in Indonesia – the violence was instigated by police and/or military actions.

Although the workers appear to have won some of their wage demands, observers are concerned for the welfare of those who may be singled out as strike leaders. Intimidation, firing – and worse – are a common fate for anyone identified as a labor activist in Indonesia.

Recent news

The recent alert originating from New Zealand concerns a "contact report" based on interviews with PT HASI workers and carried out by the Indonesian Shoe Monitoring Network (ISMN). This is the coalition of nine Indonesian nongovernmental organizations which has sought permission to conduct independent monitoring of Nike's factories in their country. Although Nike has refused permission to monitor its factories from within, ISMN does monitor conditions from the outside, through worker interviews.

The disturbing news in this ISMN "contact report" is that the Indonesian District Military Command (KODIM) has specifically singled out about 50 East Timorese male employees for harassment and initimidation following the labor unrest of late April. Although details at this time are sketchy, it appears that, following the second round of actions at the factory, some 50 of these East Timorese were summoned by KODIM to meet at a house. The report emphasizes that the workers deny having taking part in the actions of April 25.

As of this writing, we do not have further information on the treatment of these East Timorese workers – either at the hands of the military or by the Nike contractor.

Context and reasons for concern

In 1975, Indonesia invaded and forcibly annexed the newly independent state of East Timor. The invasion and subsequent occupation proved a genocide, ultimately costing the lives of some 200,000 East Timorese – approximately one third of the population. (The invasion, by the way, began within 48 hours of a brief visit by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and then-President Gerald Ford. Kissinger now is on the board of mining giant Freeport MacMoRan, which is devastating the environment of another Indonesia holding, Irian Jaya.)

This year, the Nobel committee ackowledged the scale of human disaster in East Timor by naming as peace laureates, two Timorese human rights advocates.

Since the invasion of East Timor, the Indonesian government has systematically altered the ethnic mix of that region by flooding it with Javanese and by encouraging emigration by East Timorese males.

Now enter Tutut, daughter of Indonesian dictator Suharto (who came to power via a 1965 coup with the arms, approval and aid of the US government). Suharto and his family members and cronies have made themselves billionaires many times over by bleeding the Indonesian economy of everything that might have made it a land of plenty in the Pacific.

Tutut's desire for self-enrichment coincides perfectly with her father's desire to depopulate East Timor of its indigenous males. For three or four years or more, Tutut has acted as a job recruiter, promising East Timorese men high paying jobs in Batam, an Indonesian island near Singapore. Wages in the free trade zone in Batam are actually substantially higher than in East Timor or much of the rest of Indonesia. However, most of the Timorese recruited by Tutut, supposedly to work in Batam, find themselves stuck in West Java, in jobs such as those at the Nike factories.

Implications for Nike

Nike has tried to bill the unrest at PT HASI as simply the result of a misunderstanding by the workers about their pay. The company has claimed for years that it pays twice or more the minimum wage in its Indonesian factories. Yet, following the unrest at PT HASI, Nike spin doctors were eager to show that "if you take this amount from here and add it to that amount there," it just equals the new minimum wage.

Nike has taken care to distance itself from the dirty work of oppression in Indonesia. This latest report shows a Nike contractor colluding in the abuse of one of the most injured peoples on the face of the earth. In the words of Jeff Ballinger, of Press for Change, "Nike can walk away and say it was just a misunderstanding, but what about these 50 workers – and what about others, who were involved in organizing the protest?" By intimidating the most vulnerable members of the PT HASI workforce, KODIM clearly hopes to sow terror among any employees contemplating future labor organizing at the factory. Nike, always quick to be indignant about criticisms from human rights advocates, has yet to display its capacity for moral outrage at the treatment of these East Timorese workers.