Behind the T-Shirt: A West Java labour union strives to uphold workers’ rights

15 Aug 2023

WEST JAVA, Indonesia – It is rare that a consumer considers what a label on a t-shirt reading “Made in Indonesia” might mean. While consumers may think of issues like pricing and quality of materials when it comes to clothes, labour issues – that affect the people who made these garments – rarely come to mind. In truth, behind hundreds of t-shirts hanging on clothing racks in retail stores lies the stories of the factory workers.

At the center of one of those stories is Asep (not his real name) a 20-year-old warehouse operator and National Trade Union (SPN) chairperson at one Majalengka, West Java factory in Indonesia.

A year ago, when Asep was working in Quality Control (QC), he witnessed six workers being dismissed, which he believed was management’s attempt to abolish the union that the workers were forming.

“When I was working in QC, suddenly six people were dismissed, even though they had never been absent and there were no issues,” said Asep.

The SPN reported these alleged unjust activities to the district and provincial-level union councils. The councils, in turn, brought it to the attention of the local manpower office. “The factory management, however, dismissed these reports,” Asep recalled.

Human Resources (HR) Manager Putra (not his real name), offers another perspective to the story. He says that the factory was initially against labour unions within the company, and their hesitation grew out of fear that that organized workers would cause turmoil.

“When our bosses had business in Tangerang, they had bad experiences with labour unions, as they were aggressive, while the bosses just wanted to ensure orderliness,” he recounted.

So, when several workers – including Asep – wanted to form a labour union within the factory, the management took measures to prevent its formation. Unrest followed when the news circulated around the factory that six people who were labour union members were suddenly fired after no other known issues.

Despite the pushback, workers persevered with forming a union. The new labour union asked for assistance from regional worker federations and the local manpower agency, which then came to the factory to mediate the problem. However, the factory blocked their entrance and refused to hold any further discussions with either the worker federations or the local manpower agency.

Asep’s resolve remained unshaken, despite the SPN only being a fledgling union at the time. He organized a protest at the factory, although only a small number of workers participated. It got the factory management’s attention, however, and the workers pursued dialogue with management to try to settle the ongoing disputes.

The local manpower agencies organized and facilitated a series of social dialogues – mediated conversations between the factory’s management and the labour union – in which the factory gradually opened up. Asep and his coworkers’ persistent efforts paid off. The six employees who were laid off were reinstated, and the factory promised no prohibitions related to union membership and activity. The management acknowledged and accepted the union’s presence, with the condition that the union would not stir conflicts that would hamper productivity.

“We (the management) told them, this factory is our ‘home’ that we need to take care of. If we are divided, we will not achieve our objectives. Therefore, we need to join hands and mutually support productivity for a better future,” said HR Manager Putra.

Garment factories like the one in West Java have an opportunity to better incorporate worker voice in factory culture through social dialogue.

Despite the progress, the journey was far from over. Asep and his fellow unionists still struggled to recruit new members as they worked relentlessly to explain the union’s function and purpose to colleagues outside of working hours.

“Before the dismissal incidents, it was hard to find members because they were scared of losing their jobs. After the incident’s resolution, it got a bit easier, but they still worry about getting fired if they join the union, even though the management and the union already agreed to prohibit union busting,” he explained. “Currently, there is a rumour that members who join the union will get their contracts terminated. However, there has been no evidence of this yet.”

Since then, the company has made strides in recognizing workers’ rights. For instance, the company accommodated the union’s appeal to reduce working hours from six days a week to five days a week. Putra said the management held discussions with the union to negotiate strategies during the economic downturn that ensued from the COVID-19 crisis, such as shift rotations, to avoid massive layoffs. Although workers’ enthusiasm was initially low, both union and non-union members gradually accepted the changes. His perspective illustrates factory management being pro-active in including workers’ voices but also trying to keep the factory unified.

To resolve some of the remaining friction, the company has strived to foster ongoing worker-manager discussions, an early step within the national dispute settlement mechanism. These “bipartite discussions” between the two group opens the possibility to settle many different matters.

Asep’s and Putra’s stories illustrate that creating stronger industrial relations is not an overnight success, but a process, resulting from continuous work using social dialogue to address the challenges, especially during the current economic crisis and rapidly changing global industrial climate. The industrial climate has also become increasingly challenging for trade unions, evident in the decline of unionization rates in many countries, according to a 2019 International Labour Organization (ILO) report.

The decline in unionization rates, particularly among temporary workers, poses challenges for unions in organizing and representing this segment of the workforce. This decline can be attributed to the transformation of employment relationships, which has led to increased diversity in work arrangements, including part-time work and fixed-term contracts.

These practices persists despite conventions upholding freedom of association, such as the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98). These conventions, which have been ratified by Indonesia, recognize that the right to organize and form employers’ and workers’ organizations is a prerequisite for sound collective bargaining and social dialogue.

Putra remains optimistic about the company’s future. He said that the factory’s owner has been more lenient regarding worker organization and often facilitates social dialogue between workers and management to settle disputes. Time will tell how these changes take hold and affect the factory culture.

“Since [the transformation], whenever there are new policies, we often prioritize discussions to find common ground and focus on finding solutions,” Putra said with conviction.

Amid these challenges, Asep’s SPN continues to advocate for the rights of its employees, driven by the passion and spirit of its peers and the pursuit of unfulfilled rights. They are now fighting to secure compensation for those whose contracts have expired, advocating for their contracts to be extended.

“Keep striving and remain resilient against the challenges of freedom of association, for within every company lies the potential for growth and empowerment,” Asep said.

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