Thursday, July 24, 2014

Indonesia’s next President Jokowi needs to step up


The election is over and Indonesia’s people have spoken. They have chosen a small-town businessman over the elite as their next president.

Many who supported Joko “Jokowi” Widodo have high hopes for the destitute and the working poor. They recognize that challenge is enormous. Indonesia is growing in prosperity but social exclusion is a serious problem.

Jokowi has runs on board, with his emphasis on affordable healthcare and his obvious commitment to Jakarta’s poor. He has also come out strongly for folks living with a disability and other marginalized groups. But his record on organized labor is less convincing.

Jokowi has promised that workers will be more prosperous under his presidency. But his role in the 2014 Jakarta minimum wage negotiations sent a different message. In a year where there was over 8 percent inflation, a wage rise of 10 percent didn’t account for much. Workers might have won a big increase in the previous year, but Rp 2,441,000 (US$212) per month is hardly generous in a city like Jakarta.

Jokowi’s approach to the trade unions in the lead-up to the election was also short-sighted and was no small part responsible for divisions in a labor movement that should have been behind him all the way.

The fact that Said Iqbal — the leader of the trade union recognized internationally as Indonesia’s most effective — supported Prabowo Subianto instead of Jokowi suggests that there’s a great deal of work to be done.

Iqbal of course made his own decision. And he has been paying for it ever since.

But Jokowi’s failure to engage seriously with the labor question was a contributing factor. Iqbal was disappointed with the 2014 wage negotiations. But he nevertheless repeatedly invited Jokowi (along with Prabowo and others) to debate labor policy before the elections. Jokowi never showed up. Prabowo did.

What’s more, Jokowi went on record urging workers to compromise with their bosses rather than protesting in the streets during the campaign. This sounds sensible — and indeed is good advice in cases where bosses are fair and reasonable — but it is also dangerous.

Workers’ right to engage in public protest is hard-won in post-Soeharto Indonesia. The last thing the country needs is statements from a presidential candidate suggesting that they shouldn’t exercise that right.

A first priority for Jokowi as president should be to bring all the trade union confederations to the table, including the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Unions (KSPI), which Iqbal heads. Indonesia’s future relies on foreign investment and the prosperity of local business, but also on the prosperity of workers.

If people in full-time manufacturing jobs can’t afford to educate their children or save for their future, then the country is in trouble. And few people can claim better credentials than Iqbal when it comes to empowering workers to take their place in the new Indonesia.

Jokowi and Iqbal should be natural allies. They share a commitment to universal health care and to the welfare of Indonesia’s poor. It would be a terrible waste if poor decisions on both sides in the lead-up to the election created sworn enemies where there should be allies.

These two giants in the fight for social democracy need to make peace.

As Idul Fitri approaches, the time is ripe for rapprochement.

Nothing would be a more statesman-like act from a new president than extending the olive branch.


The writer is director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre at the University of Sydney. She has been researching the Indonesian labor movement since 1995.


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