History and Background


The labor movement in Indonesia emerged around the mid-19th century when Dutch mercantilism began to transform into enterprise-capitalism and when the direct role of government in the economy was replaced by the Dutch private bourgeoisie class. At this time the working class of Indonesia began to grow. The emergence of the labor movement was also driven by the growth of radical indigenous scholars.

This latter layer arisen from the expansion of western-style education which was the impact of Dutch ethical politics. During 1900-1920, for example, the number of bumiputera (indigenous) students attending primary school increased from 896 to 38,024, while those who was continuing to HBS and MULO secondary schools increased from 13 to 1168. As for the skills education such as STOVIA and OSVIA increased from 376 to 3917 people (Shiraishi 1997: 37-38).

At this time, the labor movement grew in an atmosphere of national struggle. The first labor union in Indonesia was Nederland Indische Onderweys Genootschap (NIOG), formed in 1879. Thereafter, various labor unions were born in Indonesia. Among these are Vereeniging voor Spoor-en Tramweg Personeel in Nederlandsche-Indie (VSTP) established in 1908; The Bumiputera ‘Pegadaian’ (Pawnshop) Employee Union (PPPB) formed in 1914, and Personeel Fabrik Bond (PFB) born in 1918 (Kertonegoro 1999: 9; Shiraishi 1997: 150). These various trade unions grew together with nationalist struggle organizations such as Budi Utomo and Sarekat Islam (SI).

Although the development of the labor movement at this time seems rapid, but the labor movement in this period was actually not strong. Because of the structure of colonial capitalism was still based on the trade and production of crops, so the number of workers was only slightly compared to the total population of Indonesia.

This can be seen in the 1930 census, which shows that people who work in mechanized manufacturing companies were only 300,000 people (Hadiz 1997: 41-42). Similarly, the number of active workers in the movement is only a fraction of the total number of workers in Indonesia. Membership of the VSTP of 13,000 in 1923, for example, was only about a quarter of all rail and tram workers on the island of Java.

The weakness of the labor movement can be seen when the colonial government ended its ethical policy. Several large trade unions that tried to strike big were successfully paralyzed by the government. For example, the PPPB strike in 1922, which expanded and received support from national liberation organizations such as the Sarekat Islam Centers (CSI), Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), Budi Utomo, Muhammadiyah and the Vatcentrale Revolutonaire led by Tan Malaka and Bergsma, ended with the dismissal of 1000 workers.

Abdul Muis and Reksodiputro were taken away in Garut, while Tan Malaka and Bergsma were banished from the Indies. The right to gathering in Yogyakarta was lifted on 8 February 1922 (Shiraishi 1997: 320-323). This down turn of these great trade unions and the devastation of the PKI in 1926 drowned the labor movement during the colonial period.

After independence, at a period of time referred to the Orde Lama (Old Order), trade unions revived. Some of them were affiliated with political parties. The 1955 data collection by the Ministry of Labor states that there are 1501 national, regional and local unions, of which 56% of their national unions are not affiliated anywhere.

The largest trade union federation at the time was the Central Labor Organization of All Indonesia (SOBSI), whose leadership was largely a member of the PKI. Of 596,115 trade union members working in the manufacturing sector, about 530,000 are members of SOBSI. (Hadiz 1997: 49-51).

At this time, there was an ideological polarization between the communist and non-communist unions. After the nationalization of foreign companies began in 1957, where the nationalized companies fell into the hands of the military, anti-communist unions found their powerful partners in the military.

Similarly, the military that was increasingly integrated with capital, began to conflict with radical unions like SOBSI. They began to create a various labor control means, including counter-workers organizations such as the Sentral Organisasi Karyawan Sosialis Indonesia (SOKSI). This contradiction also broke with the occurrence of the events of September 30, 1965, followed by the massacre of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.

The deadly blow received by the labor movement was actually also a sign of the lack of labor movement in Indonesia at that time. The reason was the same as in the colonial period, the labor movement during the Orde Lama still operated in an un-industrialized economic situation with a low level of proletarization. Of the 25,000 companies registered in 1953, only 575 companies had a workforce of more than 500 people.

Meanwhile, companies which have a workforce between 100-500 people only 1500 companies. That means the rest only has a workforce of under 100 people. It is estimated that industrial workers at this time only numbered 500,000 people (Hadiz 1997: 48).

After destroyed the PKI along with other progressive organizations, including SOBSI, the Orde Baru (New Order) regime then cleansed the remaining labor forces. The trick was to facilitate various existing labor organizations into one corporatist organization that is under state control. Therefore, in 1973, the Federation of All Indonesian Workers (FBSI) was established as a forum to discuss various labor organizations.

In 1985, FBSI transformed itself into a unitarist and was called the All Indonesian Workers Union (SPSI). However, in 1990, SPSI changed again to a federation under the name FSPSI (Kertonegoro 1999: 17-20). Meanwhile, to weaken civil servants, they were separated from private labor and fanned into the Employee Corps (Kokar) which later became the Corps of Civil Servants of the Republic of Indonesia (Korpri). (Hadiz 1997: 69).

In the 1990s, the labor movement in Indonesia began to rise again. The evident was seen from the number of strikes and alternative labor organizations that are starting to grow. In 1988, there were only 39 strikes, but by 1994, this number had risen to about 367 strikes. Alternative labor organizations were born. In 1990, the Free Trade Union (SBM) of Setiakawan was established by several labor activists and NGOs. Then, in 1992, standing also All Trade Union of Indonesia (SBSI). Later, there are also more radical unions, such as the Indonesian Labor Struggle Center (PPBI)

The revival of the labor movement was then responded by the state by repression. This new emerging labor movement did not seem strong enough to challenge the country. This is because of the tradition of organized in the workers had broken up by the destruction of the popular movement in 1966. When the economic crisis hit Indonesia in 1997, the pioneering social movement was taken by a sector whose tradition of organizational relatively uninterrupted and close to the world of ideas that can grow a critical attitude: student movement

After the fall of Soeharto, the labor movement underwent various changes. Among of them was the freedom to organize for workers. In the past period, it had been so difficult to establish unions outside the FSPSI, because of the various regulations that hampered. After Reformasi, based on Law no. 21 of 2000 Concerning Trade Unions, trade unions can be formed only with at least 10 persons. A variety of unions emerged during this period.

Nevertheless, the development of the labor movement in this period was not without serious obstacles. Neoliberalism has gripped Indonesia and the practice new flexibilization (irregular workers and outsourcing) that makes employment became flexible, has made it difficult the workers to be organized. Increased capital mobility and financialization resulting in deindustrialization have also complicated the organization of labor.


Labor is the only social class that can paralyze capital. The reason is that capital depends on the exploitation of workers to continue to exist and accumulate. Nevertheless, the labor movement still operates in a certain structural condition which contains certain opportunities and/or barriers for itself.

From the above explanation, we can see that the labor movement in the colonial and the Orde Lama faced the structural obstacles of unindustrialized economic situation with low levels of proletarization. At present, workers live in neoliberalism, characterized by labor market flexibility, high levels of capital mobility and financialization that impact deindustrialization.

The labor market flexibility has had an impact on the difficulty of organizing workers, as the turnover rate is higher. Similarly, high capital mobility between geographical locations and industrial branches that have implications for the high displacement of production sites and layoffs will also have a similar impact.

Meanwhile, the financial or capital transfer from production to the financial sector, affecting deindustrialization and declining proletarization, will provide relatively the same obstacles that the labor movement experienced in the colonial and the Old Order. To overcome these obstacles, the labor movement must be more open to unity. The inter-branch capital mobility of industry, for example, can only be overcome by the union of industrial laborers.

In other parts of the world, resistance to neoliberalism also comes from the workers in the public sector. The reason, neoliberalism implements a policy of budget tightening and privatization that hit the workers in the public sector. In the UK, for example, in response to rationalization and closing policies. In a fully industrialized and even de-industrialized country, such as Indonesia, the labor market situation and labor bargaining power, are strongly influenced by other sectors of the people.

For example, the removal of fuel subsidies and floods of imported agricultural products will reduce the exchange rate of farmers, which makes farmers stop being farmers and migrate to cities to find other jobs. As a result, reserved labor is increasing, while the deindustrialized world cannot absorb new labor. The labor market is becoming increasingly inequal and the bargaining power of the workers towards capital declines.

In order to build and lead the anti-neoliberal multi-sector unity block, the working people must build their own political organization. And for this, it needs a workers who are politically aware and not resistant to political struggle. Capital, however, will always use its political power through the state to facilitate the exploitation of the workers.

Without political struggle, it is impossible for the workers to be able to stop the oppression of capital. Hence, the role of the mass organizations (mass organizations) of labor becomes important as the ‘ground teaching’ for the workers to foster political consciousness.


The idea of ​​the need for a multi-sector union block has emerged some time before. Several federations who then agreed to unite then decided to take the initiative to start the process of unification. In addition to the written commitment, we also create a structure that will allow for unity of action and harmony of movement in realizing this unity.

That’s why we then held a congress on 11-13 November 2012 in Parung, Bogor district, West Java province. The Congress was followed and approved by 13 Trade Union Federations. These following are the signatories’ trade union federations:

  1. Federation of Strategic Enterprise Workers Union,
  2. Federation of Indonesian Pulp and Paper Workers Union (FSP2KI)
  3. Federation of Democratic Workers’ Union (FSPK)
  4. Federation of Karya Utama Trade Unions (FSBKU)
  5. Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Central Java