Following the end of 31 years of dictatorship in 1998, Indonesia has become the world’s third largest democracy. Dubbed a “Tiger” economy for adopting the East Asian growth model, it joined the ranks of the G20 in 2008, indicating its position among the top advanced economies.  Economic prosperity, however, is not shared by all. Roughly half of the country’s 250 million people live just above the national poverty line, $22 per month, and 32 million survive on less.

In a series of unprecedented public actions between 2011 and 2013, millions of Indonesia’s unionized workers took to the streets to protest increasing inequities. They campaigned for and won social security reforms, increased minimum wages by as much as 44 percent and secured passage of new regulations restricting employer abuses of labor outsourcing.

Despite recent successes, Indonesia’s unions face enormous challenges in an environment of rampant corruption and weak rule of law. Anti-union discrimination is common. Employers routinely refuse to recognize unions or discuss improvements in working conditions. Many form management-controlled unions to undercut worker-led unions or seek to intimidate workers from forming unions by firing workers or trumping up criminal charges against union activists. When workers feel compelled to strike, Indonesian law does not effectively protect them.

Many companies recruit women workers between age 18 and 23 under short-term contracts, replacing them when the contracts expire. Other workers are employed year after year under short-term contracts. And still others are hired by intermediaries under the ruse of a labor agency which makes it difficult for workers to know the identity of their employer. All practices, often used by employers to keep wages low and unions on the defensive, are against the law in Indonesia.

When unions are weak or do not exist, workers are more likely to suffer human rights violations. Forced labor and child labor, for example, have been documented in Indonesia’s important palm oil industry. Sexual harassment is not uncommon in garment factories, and women employees have been barred from marriage or terminated with impunity if they become pregnant.

Some 65 percent of Indonesia’s 110 million workers make a living in the “informal economy,” where legal protections are nearly non-existent. More than 2 million workers, mostly women, are employed as domestic workers in Indonesian households, and it is estimated that roughly one-third are girls under age 18. More than 6 million Indonesians work abroad, mostly in Malaysia and the Middle East. Many are vulnerable to human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

The Solidarity Center seeks to increase the capacity of unions and human rights groups aiming to empower Indonesian workers to have a voice regarding their conditions of work and to better provide for their families in a global economy punctuated with inequity.