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Amid furloughs, union leaders negotiate for worker protections

3 Jun 2021

Being the “bearers of bad news” has been an unwelcome role that the COVID-19 pandemic thrust upon union leaders Mario Prostasius and Iwan Ridwan. In a year of unprecedented change and decreased demand, they have often had to share news of factory closures and potential layoffs to their fellow workers.

As COVID-19 hit Indonesia in March 2020, the factory Prostasius and Ridwan work for, export-oriented shoes manufacturer PT Sepatu Mas Idaman (PT Semasi) in Bogor, West Java, saw a 70 percent dip in buyers’ orders. Amid border closures and decreased global demand, the company and workers negotiated through social dialogue to reach an agreement: to not resort to lay-offs.

When he was informed of the declining order figures in April 2020, Prostasius says his first thought was one of hopelessness: “There is nothing else we can do.” The pandemic was taking a crushing toll. At the time, around half of the factories in the area were under similar distress, he says, noting that many had resorted to a “no work, no pay scheme.”

Instead of despairing, Prostasius, who leads PT Semasi’s Federation of Metal Workers Union, dedicated himself to gathering opinions among its 268 union members from the company’s 1,600 workers.  He also consulted with other union leaders to navigate these uncharted waters.

Ridwan, the head of PT Semasi’s Independent Workers Union covering 850 members, said his initial fear was of business failure and closure of the company, affecting the workers’ livelihoods and negatively impacting thousands of families. Having weighed all viable scenarios through the social dialogue process, union representatives and PT Semasi management eventually agreed to furlough workers with compensation.

“We didn’t easily come to an agreement,” says Ridwan.  “It was only normal for us  to have differing opinions. There were some who did not want this and that. So we had to have negotiations.” Encouraging social dialogue has been the focal point of Better Work Indonesia’s  advisory, especially as the pandemic has brought sensitive issues like wages and work stoppage to the surface. National regulations issued on wages and employment have also emphasized that agreements created between workers and employers need to be established before the employers can take measures for business continuity.

Better Work Indonesia has facilitated a joint commitment called the “Collaboration to Protect Safety and Health, Business Sustainability and Welfare of Workers/Labour in the Export-Oriented Garment Industry,” signed by workers’ unions and employers’ associations to uphold social dialogue for employment and business resilience. Virtual trainings and seminars as well as live Instagram sessions delivered by Better Work Indonesia have aimed at empowering workers in communicating and negotiating with employers on industrial issues. The crisis conditions of the pandemic made such a commitment only more urgent.

As their factory’s operations are returning amid arriving orders, both Prostasius and Ridwan are turning to the mobile messaging application WhatsApp for  gathering worker feedback. Social dialogue has established a means of incorporating workers’ suggestions, from adjusting the layout in the production facilities to increasing the number of hand-washing equipment to avoid long lines and to allow for social distancing. Prostasius and Ridwan have also been involved by the company to patrol the production facilities every day to ensure that workers are complying with health protocols. As Cambodia experiences a COVID-19 resurgence, their role representing the interests of workers will continue to be crucial.

“Workers need to be healthy, and the factory needs to keep on going,” Prostasius says, “that is fixed, but the rest can be negotiated.”

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