Indonesians Push for Labor Rights Human Rights Groups Say the `Model Developing Economy' Has Undermined Worker Welfare

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AS Indonesia convenes a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Jakarta this week, the US government announced that it will investigate allegations of forced labor and the military suppression of Indonesia's factory workers, who are among the lowest-paid in Southeast Asia.

Hearings in Washington, to be held this October by United States Trade Representative Carla Hills, could embarrass Indonesia's President Suharto. Mr. Suharto is expected to hold up his country at the summit as a model of development, marked by rapid economic growth and prompt repayment of debt. The investigation could lead to a cutoff of beneficial trade quotas under the General System of Preferences (GSP).

Petitions from human rights organizations such as Asia Watch and the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund have alleged a pattern of repression of Indonesia's independent labor unions. Under US law, foreign trade partners must provide acceptable working conditions, including the freedom to organize and bargain collectively, to qualify for GSP trade privileges. The US decision to review these privileges gives tacit support to critics who charge that Indonesian companies have sacrificed worker welfare for economic gain.

"We are not happy" with the US investigation, said Payaman Simanjuntak, director general of Industrial Relations and Labor Standards at Indonesia's Ministry of Manpower, in an interview. "There is nothing really new in the case submitted by Asia Watch." Indonesia avoided suspension during a similar GSP review in 1989.

Suspension of GSP privileges would mean a loss of face more than income. Less than 10 percent of Indonesia's $3.4 billion worth of exports to the US last year fell under GSP. Some analysts doubt the US will order GSP suspension, given its past hesitancy to upset relations with this strategic nation brimming with investment opportunities.

Indonesian officials see little to worry about.

"I don't think the United States is willing to do that," Mr. Simanjuntak said, referring to GSP suspension. "If the investigating committee finds something wrong with our system, it's a matter of negotiation. That will be the maximum."

But critics welcomed the move.

"Indonesia is very backward in terms of catching up to international labor standards," says Valentin Suazo, head of the AFL-CIO office in Jakarta. "Working conditions are horrendous in many factories."

In places like Tangerang, an industrial zone west of Jakarta, many factories do not pay the minimum wage, which barely tops $1 a day. Child labor is endemic. Local newspapers have reported a spate of mass food-poisoning at factory cafeterias.

More than 300 wildcat strikes have erupted in Indonesia's industrial centers since January, triple the official figure for all last year. Slowly, an independent labor movement is emerging, despite state surveillance, beatings, and expulsion of protesters.

"Humiliation is crueler than murder," reads a graffito on the door to a workers' dormitory room in Tangerang. "How long must I be patient?" asks another.

Workers have begun writing their own chronologies of labor disputes, surreptitiously photocopying and distributing them to inspire further action. …