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
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
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
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. …