Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Legacy of Colonial Labour Unions in Indonesia

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Legacy of Colonial Labour Unions in Indonesia

Article excerpt

After the defeat of the Japanese and the declaration of Indonesian independence in August 1945 labour unions quickly re-emerged to organise urban and rural workers and within a short time organised workers were confronting employers and the newly independent state. Labour union leaders faced the challenges of organising urban workers divided by ethnicity, class, religion and regionalism. Indonesian governments faced questions such as how to regulate labour conditions, how to manage labour disputes and how to negotiate the place of organised labour in the body politic. Key political and labour leaders after 1945 had been active in pre-war politics and labour unions.(1) In establishing policies and directions they were considerably influenced by their pre-war experiences. These experiences, together with the ideals and the remembered histories of the 1920s and 1930s, were important in shaping the direction of post-independence labour unions and the relationship between labour unions, political parties and the state.

The legacy of the colonial labour movement in Indonesia will be discussed under five broad headings: labour unions and the development of political consciousness; labour unions as socio-economic institutions; leaders, followers and the development of worker leadership; organisational and structural legacies; and class, ethnic and religious divisions. There are obviously other ways of looking at the pre-war labour unions but these five themes enable an analysis of their more important long-term contribution to Indonesian social and political history.

Labour Unions and the Development of Political Consciousness

Political consciousness in colonial Indonesia is difficult to measure with any precision. There were no public opinion polls, no elections (with the exception of very restricted elections for Municipal Councils) and tough state controls on the right of assembly and of free speech.(2) But nationalist parties did recruit members, as did labour unions and large voluntary organisations such as the Islamic-based Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama, as well as dozens of smaller organisations appealing to Indonesians, Chinese, Eurasians and Europeans and to regional, ethnic and religious affiliations.(3) In the 1920s and 1930s labour unions were major urban organisations in colonial Indonesia. In 1931, for example, there were around 100,000 financial members of urban labour unions. Compare this with the total membership of nationalist political parties in 1931 of around 20,000.(4) Labour union membership was concentrated among government employees where probably as many as one in four joined. Compare this to workers employed in private companies where probably less than one in twenty were union members. Membership of all unions fell away during the Depression years, but on the eve of the Japanese occupation labour unions had returned to 1931 membership levels.

Newspapers, magazines, newsletters and brochures were published, local groups met frequently and there were regular Congresses and public rallies as well as occasional demonstrations. Civil society was tightly constricted by punitive laws enforced by an efficient surveillance and policing system. Nevertheless, there was some space in which labour unions could operate and central and local union leaders constantly tested its limits.

The printed word of this civil society was extensive and much has survived. Together with the extensive political surveillance, regular reports from officials in the colonial bureaucracy and records of Indonesian organisations themselves seized in police raids on offices and homes, this enables us to go some way towards compiling a picture of the development of political consciousness in the last four decades of colonial rule.(5)

The principal activity of labour unions in any society is to organise workers in an industry, a workplace or a region into collective action to improve wages and conditions and resolve grievances with employers. …

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