Spotlight on M. Sulistris (K-SBSI, Indonesia)

“I hope the ITUC will strengthen international solidarity for women”

M. Sulistris is in charge of the Women’s Department at the K-SBSI (1), one of the ITUC’s affiliated organisations in Indonesia. The 33-year old speaks of her hopes for the merger of the two major trade union internationals. She also explains how Indonesian women trade unionists are fighting to defend their rights and those of young workers more effectively.

What are you expecting from the new International Trade Union Confederation?

I hope the future will see women in a stronger position, with more opportunities to get directly involved in negotiations in companies. The fact that the unions are uniting is a good thing both at the international level and for Indonesia, even if some sensitive issues, such as those resulting from clashes of personalities, may at times be hindering these developments. We have often been helped by being members of the WCL, through being able to share knowledge and the support we have received from the WCL when we were faced with a major problem in an Indonesian factory (anti-union repression). I hope the merger will bring us even more international solidarity of this kind. We also hope to get more information on what women in other countries are doing to win respect in the unions and the world of work.

How did you join the trade union movement?

I used to work in a clothing factory. In 1992, one of my friends gave me some information about the trade union movement and I became a member as I wanted to protect my rights better. That was a very difficult period: under the Suharto regime companies were not prepared to enter into collective bargaining, there was a lot of repression and the unions could not achieve some of the things they can achieve today. Three years later I was elected President of the union in my company, then I joined the federation and now I am head of the Women’s Department in my confederation K-SBSI.

What kind of youth work does the K-SBSI do?

We are pressing the Government to include industrial relations in the secondary school curriculum and we hope that will encourage young graduates to join unions when they finish their studies. We also run campaigns to help our members learn more about the kinds of discrimination suffered by young people and women in companies. Even though there are equal wages, women will not always receive child allowances, for instance.

Our confederation must change its strategy on organising young and women workers. We have prepared brochures and posters to try and convince young people to join up, but we need more sporting activities, for instance, so that young people get a different image of the union.

What are the main issues the K-SBSI Women’s Committee is working on?

K-SBSI has around 400,000 fee-paying members. 35% are women. Our aim is to strengthen women’s capacity to become union leaders and we are managing this through training. Courses are also organized for training women in negotiation techniques: in Indonesia, the vast majority of negotiators are men and we are afraid that the content of the agreements they reach will not meet some of the specific needs of women workers, such as those concerning family allowances or maternity leave. The confederation does the initial training of trainers who then run courses in companies. Around 15% of the women members of K-SBSI have received this type of training so far. We have produced some written materials on negotiating such matters that are useful to both men and women negotiators.

Have you felt any resistance from male trade unionists to your efforts to give women workers a stronger voice?

As in other countries it is not always easy for Indonesian women to climb up the trade union hierarchy since some men are scared of losing their positions. We do not want to fight the men, we prefer talking to them and raising their awareness of the injustices we suffer, so as to gain their support in our struggle for gender equality. At an institutional level, we only have the Women’s Department at the moment at the K-SBSI. Women are not yet members of the ‘presidium’ (steering committee), the confederation’s leadership body. Our aim is to change that after the next congress.

Does the quota system help promote women’s position in the unions?

We have a women’s quota that has to be respected at the K-SBSI. That is a good thing, but in certain federations, such as the mining federation, we realize that it cannot be achieved. And quotas are not enough in themselves: it is also important for women to have access to the top posts in the unions, such as those of treasurer or vice-president, etc.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia