Spotlight interview with Rekson Silaban (Indonesia-KSBSI)

“Innovation is needed in trade union recruitment methods”

The Indonesian union confederation KSBSI is deploying dynamic strategies to boost membership levels, especially in the informal economy. Rekson Silaban, president of the KSBSI (1) and a vice president of the ITUC, offers a realistic assessment of their results, provides an update on the trade union projects that followed the Tsunami in 2004, and stresses the need for the international trade union movement to promote new ways of organising.

Your confederation has set up a financial reward scheme for affiliated organisations recruiting new members. What prompted you to set up this system and how successful has it been?

With the growing flexibility of the labour market in Indonesia, increasing numbers of workers are being forced into subcontracting work. It has become increasingly difficult and costly to organise them, as they are no longer “fixed targets” – they move from one region to another and from one company to another. In addition, the unions only pay us affiliation fees of 1% per worker per month, which does not amount to much as the minimum wage is very low. Our organisers were having difficulties recruiting new members and the cost per member recruited had become too high.

So, two years ago, we set up special recruitment teams and committed to paying two euros for every new member recruited, which comes to more or less the same as the cost of printing documents, the campaign material, the cost of travel to visit workers, etc. This amount was paid to the local unions, to help them expand their membership base. We were able to recruit 5,000 new members within a year thanks to this system. The money we transferred to the local unions came from our savings, but the idea was that we would recover it in the long run, thanks to the affiliation fees from the new members. In that sense, it was a kind of loan. More and more local unions wanted to take part in this type of recruitment campaign, but we had to draw it to a close, for lack of funds. The problem is that the affiliation fees are not always paid on a regular basis, among other things because some workers lose their jobs. At the end of the day, we laid out more money than we got back.

Two of the ITUC’s priorities are to organise more women and more young people. What’s the situation on this level in your confederation?

Our confederation represents 462,000 members, grouped within 11 federations, three of which are headed by women. The proportion of men to women is approximately 50-50. Since our last congress, we have set up an Equality Commission, composed mainly of women. Its task is to mainstream gender issues into unions’ programmes and activities. A lot remains to be done to overcome gender discrimination in Indonesia. Certain job offers, for example, state that they are looking for “attractive” women. We have ratified the international standards concerning non-discrimination, but discrimination still exists in practice.

As regards young people, 80% of our members are under 35. Given the industrial landscape in Indonesia, focusing on young people isn’t a problem, as that’s the nature of the workforce employed by the large companies, especially in the garment and electronics sectors, where employers usually prefer young workers.

Are you active in the informal economy?

65% of the workforce in Indonesia is in the informal economy. Many workers, including members of ours, have been forced out of their permanent jobs and have ended up in the informal economy. As unions, we feel a sense of responsibility towards them, even though they no longer hold jobs of the traditional kind. We have been trying to organise informal economy workers for a number of years now. If we took a traditional approach, talking to them about collective agreements, for example, it wouldn’t work, as they have no employer. We have to use different strategies to attract them, such as offering social security schemes and assistance with setting up cooperatives.

Social security coverage is one of the main benefits informal economy workers can draw from joining a union, since most Indonesians have no access to quality health care. We have set up a union committee that collects the union dues every month and have lobbied social security firms to get coverage for informal economy workers. According to Indonesian legislation, social security covers workers, their spouses and up to two children. Four people are therefore covered against illness or accident.

What’s the situation regarding cooperatives?

Men and women who work in the street, in the informal economy, do not have access to loans from banks or other lending agents, as they require collateral for any loans granted. Some government departments offer small loans, but only to credible applicants. We assist the workers in the procedures with these institutions, we act as their surety and give them credibility. They manage to pay the loan back in time, in most cases. As of this moment, we do not directly intervene any more to help these people and limit ourselves to providing them with advice on their project. In Aceh, for example, following the Tsunami, we helped to set up a brick making cooperative that has now become one of the largest brick kilns in the region.

In other instances, we help informal workers to collect their own funds to develop a project that they manage themselves, with our advice. We give them training so that they can deal with the management and administrative tasks, as well as to help them develop better strategies to sell their goods. When we have the funds, we put our own money into micro-credit projects.

A total of 8000 people are involved in our cooperatives. But we have to be realistic: we are not in a position to help the 67 million people working in the informal economy, so we are taking it one step at a time, helping those who are there on a permanent basis first.

Indonesia received international aid, including trade union solidarity funds, following the tsunami in December 2004. Three years on, what is your assessment of the projects implemented?

As regards the projects implemented by unions, I would say that there have been some good projects and some less successful. Since the tsunami, Aceh has become the most expensive region in Indonesia, because of the large amount of international funding it received. We also don’t know what will be left behind once the international donors financing the big projects pull out of the affected regions, such as Aceh. For the small ones we will have no problem, as they have already survived. A positive thing we get there is that KSBSI has been able to recruit more members in Aceh and is now the most representative union in this region. Our membership grew from 2 200 before the tsunami to 4 500 people now.

What are the main workers’ rights violations in Indonesia?

Our legislation regarding trade union rights is better than in most other ASEAN countries (2), but the problem lies in its enforcement. First of all, the labour inspection system is very weak. Secondly, since decentralisation, we have observed that workers’ rights violations are mainly concentrated in regions far from the capital, Jakarta, and that the government is no longer able to control the situation there. Many of those living in these regions don’t know or don’t understand the national legislation. They concentrate on the regional laws. Employers still hire mobile police or even military brigades to protect their companies when faced with union activism. Having said that, there has been a fall in the number of trade unionists attacked by thugs.

The most common problem is discrimination against trade unionists. It’s nothing unusual for your contract not to be renewed if you’re a union member. In some instances, employers also close down relatively unionised companies, only to reopen them immediately afterwards under another name, employing the workers they prefer – those that are not union members. Some companies also pursue a single union policy, only authorising the company-controlled union that has been in place since the beginning and from which most of the management team has emerged.

You are a member of the General Council and the Executive Bureau of the ITUC. How do you see the future of the international trade union movement?

At this moment in time, the most important task for international union organisations is to promote new ways of organising workers. Until now, we have limited ourselves to vociferating about the increased flexibility demanded of workers, without introducing new recruitment methods geared towards the growing numbers of workers entering a more flexible labour market. There should be discussions, seminars on this subject. As I said, in Indonesia these workers are “moving targets”, so it’s difficult and costly to recruit them. A new strategy has to be developed so that we can adapt to this growing flexibility, which manifests itself in the form of relocations, outsourcing, recourse to subcontracting firms, etc. But the trade union approach is still the same as it was when workers were employed on a permanent basis.

Flexibility is a reality. We cannot keep on simply pinpointing it as the enemy, and leave it at that. We have to reflect on what we can do for these workers who are falling deeper into poverty, who are losing social protection, and whose future is increasingly uncertain. We, for our part, have deployed the “two euros per new recruit” strategy, but we would like to hear about the best practices, about the lessons drawn by others to combat the decline of trade unions.

You are also a member of the ILO Governing Body. Despite its efforts, the international community has not secured any tangible improvements in one of the countries where workers’ rights are most violated, Burma. What avenues could be explored to be more effective?

Mechanisms that could be used to shore up sanctions should be examined. At present, when a government behaves in such a manner, it is placed under a special programme, missions are sent to embarrass it… but some countries are not ashamed of being embarrassed. The ILO’s role could be strengthened through greater collaboration with the International Court of Justice when dealing with cases such as Burma. Failing that, everyone knows the maximum penalty that the ILO is able to impose. So, frankly, dictators are not too scared.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) Konfederasi Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia (Confederation of Indonesia Prosperity Trade Unions,

(2) Association of South East Asian Nations