Freeport Cracks Down On West Papuan Unions


This is the second article of a two-part series on industrial action and Freeport in West Papua by Claudia King and Alex Rayfield. Read the first part here.

Freeport mine is emblematic of much that is wrong in West Papua. Although the company tried to respond to local indigenous West Papuan grievances by hiring Papuan staff and redirecting 1 per cent of the profits to support members of the local seven tribes, new problems continue to be added on top of old, unresolved issues. The local tribes, a number of whom work in the mine, and Freeport mine workers from elsewhere bring in massive profits for the company. They work under extreme conditions at high altitude but feel like they have little stake in the company and few worker benefits.

"We are not valued as human beings. We are treated as an instrument of the company. Our goal is to get to a position where we are treated as human," says union organiser Sudiro.

According to miners interviewed in July 2011, many workers are forced to take out bank loans to pay for basic needs and to support their families. After retirement, some must seek alternative types of income. Yet when workers attempt to raise these issues with Freeport management, they have received warning letters in return.

"It seems like the company sees us as the troublemakers. But," says Sudiro, referring to workers’ contributions to gold and copper production, "we are the solution-makers."

SPSI PT Freeport Indonesia is one local branch of the national labour union federation of Indonesia. The organisation has represented PTFI mine workers in 16 Collective Labor Agreements (CLA) dating back to 1977. But until recently it functioned as little more than a rubber stamp for company policies.

Freeport has a history of suppressing workers’ rights and union organising. Under Suharto, independent labour organising was prohibited. Those that tried were often killed or spent years in jail. But over the past decade, as political space has slowly opened up, Sudiro and other workers have been quietly organising. And they have done so through exchanges on the internet, educating themselves on best practice and lessons learned from unions in other parts of the world. "We particularly admired the quiet, peaceful way Japanese workers raised their grievances," says Sudiro.

SPSI PT Freeport Indonesia’s mission and objectives are limited to workers’ rights and their tactics are exclusively nonviolent. But they continue to be associated with violence and separatism. "We use a peaceful way. We don’t want to get into the political arena, this is not our area. We just want to struggle for our rights, and to have the same rights as workers elsewhere."

Campaigns to educate fellow mine workers about their rights and the role of unions in protecting workers seem to be paying off. Reflecting on worker participation in the recent strike, Sudiro says, "The workers finally opened their eyes and minds to the situation. The company cannot stop this. We have woken up. We will never go back to how we were treated before the strike."

Nevertheless, SPSI Freeport members continue to face threats and intimidation from the company. When two of the union members travelled to Jayapura to seek advice from Papuan leaders, they were followed by Indonesian security forces who have long been paid by Freeport to guard the mine.

"The company does not like us organising for workers’ rights, but we are not doing anything wrong. The strike is an action that is guaranteed by the law. Indonesia is a member of the ILO and the ILO is very clear. We have the right to form a union and we have done so according to Indonesian law" says Sudiro.

Article 104 (1) of Indonesian National Law Number 13, 2003 explicitly states: "Every worker/labourer has the right to form and become a member of a trade/ labour union."

The company has utilised a range of "dirty" tactics to avoid dealing with SPSI demands over wages and conditions. One of the most galling for mineworkers was the creation of a "new" union aimed at pushing out SPSI’s union. The new union was created in response to SPSI Freeport mineworkers’ agitation around wages and conditions.

At the same time the company declared the SPSI Freeport Mine Workers Union — an organisation that has grown from a low of 4000 to 8200 members — illegal, and promptly fired six of the leadership including Sudiro himself. The only problem was this new "union" had no members. Its board was appointed by Nur Hadiah, a lawyer based in Jayapura, in violation of SPSI regulations. "It was a completely fake union," said Sudiro.

The reaction from the workers? An overwhelming decision from all of the 254 union representatives to strike and nearly 100 per cent participation from SPSI Freeport union members. "We were up against a wall. We had no other choice," Sudiro said.
But the strike was not just about wages. "We wanted the company to recognise the union, the right to freely organise, and to reinstate the six SPSI Union leaders who were dismissed by Freeport for conducting union business" said Sudiro.

After more than a week of strikes and continuous demonstrations, on the evening of 11 July PT Freeport Indonesia gave in to SPSI’s demands. They reinstated the union leaders without any deduction in salary, agreed to pay the wages of all striking workers for the duration of the strike, agreed to recognise SPSI Freeport Mine Workers Union as the sole legal representative of Freeport mine workers and also agreed to enter into Collective Labor Agreement negotiations. Those negotiations opened Wednesday 20 July at the Freeport-owned Hotel Rimba Papua in Timika. They are still continuing and according to company sources are not expected to finish until 19 August. Both workers and management are remaining tight-lipped about their progress.

The current Collective Labor Agreement negotiations are different. They are not only about wages and conditions. They also concern the company’s relationship with local landowners, the Amungme and Kamoro, as well as five other major highland tribes — the Dani, Moni, Damal, Mee/Ekari and Nduga.

Amungme tribal elder Hengky Uamang speaks to us at one of the SPSI union leaders’ rented duplex house in the back lanes of Timika. His voice is quiet and one of his compatriots translates from Amungme into Indonesian so that we can understand what he is saying. His message is simple and profound.

"My heart is broken. It is as if we are not human beings but a piece of gold to be consumed. I am gold but I get no benefit." Tears slowly roll down his face.

Others in the crowded living room become angry. "Does Moffet [the US Chair of Freeport McMoRan]have no shame?" Jecky Amisim asks. "Does he not fear God? Don’t you people in America know that if you come to someone’s place and want to take something, you have to ask first?"

The seven tribal leaders nod in agreement. Sudiro tells us: "If these negotiations fail, we will see it as a death of democracy."

"If Moffett and Armando Mahler (the president of PT Freeport Indonesia) can’t help us, if the wealth of these mountains do not bring a benefit to us the local tribes, the workers and the people of Papua," says Amisim, "then it is better we just kick this company out."

The strike may be over, but as union and management begin month-long negotiations over their biannual Collective Labour Agreement, the company continues to face the possibility of continued disruption from disgruntled workers and restive landowners seeking significant changes after years of opposition to Freeport mining.

This is the second article of a two-part series on industrial action and Freeport in West Papua. Read the first part here. This article was originally published on Open Democracy


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