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In Indonesia, the Solidarity Center works with its partners to build strong unions, support advocacy campaigns, improve workers’ access to legal representation, and empower women workers.

Participants in an Economics for All workshop perform a role-playing exercise. 

A former Dutch colony and now the world’s third largest democracy, Indonesia is an archipelago made up of more than 17,000 islands in the middle of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It covers some 741,000 square miles, slightly less than three times the size of Texas. Of a population of more than 240 million, iit has a workforce of 112 million. Its major industries are petroleum and natural gas, textiles, apparel, and mining; major agricultural products include palm oil, rice, tea, coffee, spices, and rubber. Hundreds of thousands of workers, the vast majority of them young women, are employed in export processing zones.

The Japanese invasion and subsequent occupation during World War II ended centuries of Dutch rule begun in the 17th century and encouraged a dormant Indonesian independence movement. Two days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945, Indonesia declared independence. The newly appointed president, Sukarno, became more and more authoritarian, maintaining his power base by wiping out the opposition. In 1965, between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were killed after a failed coup destroyed the Communist Party. In 1968 his own military forces ousted the politically weakened Sukarno, and he was succeeded by General Suharto.

Under three decades of Suharto’s “New Order,” Indonesia’s economy grew and thrived, but the regime was widely accused of corruption and suppression of political opposition. In 1997 and 1998, Indonesia was the country hardest hit by the Asian financial crisis, and the economy collapsed, sending millions into poverty. Popular discontent led to massive protests and Suharto’s resignation in May 1998. In 1999, the first democratic elections were held. In 2004, Indonesia held its first presidential election. Although Indonesia’s democratic processes are stronger under the current president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, political and economic instability, social unrest, corruption, and terrorism have slowed progress.

After decades of repression, Indonesia’s independent unions are still in their infancy and face enormous challenges in the areas of organizing, governance, and mastering a new national labor court system. The heavy use of temporary contract labor in EPZs, for example, makes it difficult for EPZ workers to form and join unions. Many widespread employment practices in EPZs violate both Indonesian law and core labor standards, and thousands of workers toil in substandard conditions for poverty-level wages. Time will tell whether Indonesia is growing into a mature democracy or whether the past five years have been simply a lull before further turmoil unleashed by the global economic crisis.

Indonesia: Workers Set for Second Nationwide Strike. November 4, 2013—Indonesian workers are planning a second round of nationwide protests for better wages, likely beginning November 6, according to the Jakarta Labor Forum.

Indonesian Unions Conduct Two-Day National Strike. October 31, 2013--Hundreds of thousands of Indonesian workers started a two-day national strike today demanding the government institute a fair minimum wage, end rampant employer violations of labor outsourcing and speed up implementation of a universal health care law.

Indonesia: Worker Solidarity Gets Results. November 2, 2012—A strike by 2 million blue-collar Indonesian workers over wages and job outsourcing resulted in government promises to improve worker pay and restrict the use of workers subcontracted through labor agencies.

Indonesian Workers Can Defy Challenges to Unionize. May 24, 2012—Although Indonesia's economy is growing and poverty decreasing, the average worker is not reaping the benefits of a booming economy, according to Jamie Davis, Solidarity Center country program director in Jakarta.

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