Workers at the Freeport McMoRan mine in West Papua resumed strikes on 15 September after more than six weeks of unresolved negotiation talks with company management.
Increasing numbers of international media are covering the workers’ return to strikes, the first of which ended in July after eight days of work stoppage that halted production at the Grasberg mine.
However, national and international media have focused solely on worker demands for an increase in their hourly pay rate — ignoring the history of Freeport’s unfair and even illegal treatment of the mine’s so-called "non-staff" workers.
West Papuan workers receive the lowest wages ($1.50-$3.00) of any Freeport mining facility in the world, despite the fact that their work accounts for 95 per cent of the company’s consolidated gold production, and a substantial percentage of Freeport’s copper production. According to NASDAQ, Freeport has reaped astonishingly high profits from the low labour costs at the West Papuan site, enabling the company "margins in excess of 60 per cent in past years".
Indonesian energy minister Darwin Zahedy Saleh estimates the Indonesian government alone could lose as much as $6.7 million in tax revenues, royalties and other payments from Freeport every day the strike carried on. Leaders of the All Indonesian Workers Union (freeport division) have said they will agree to a 25 per cent wage increase (down from demands for increases of up to $200 per hour) but Freeport management is so far refusing to lift their offer higher than 22 per cent.
However, media coverage of the strikes is missing Freeport’s long history of suppressing workers’ rights and union organising in Papua, not to mention the historical context and legacy of poor industrial relations out of which these strikes have emerged.
For one, Freeport McMoRan’s contract of work with the Indonesian government was signed prior to a scheduled referendum on West Papua’s political status. The UN had granted Indonesian temporary control over the region in 1963 but by the time the "Act of Free Choice" of 1969 was ready to proceed, only 1,022 West Papuans — less than 0.01 per cent of the population at the time — participated. In reality there was no referendum and no vote. Papuans were told by Indonesian military generals to vote for Indonesian rule or have "their tongues cut out". Unsurprisingly, in this atmosphere of intimidation, 100 per cent choose to support West Papua’s incorporation.
But Freeport McMoRan, subsidiary PT Freeport Indonesia, did not even wait for this farce. The US Company made a deal with the Indonesian dictator Suharto, who was waging military operations in West Papua at the time. Freeport signed their first contract of work in 1967, two years before the 1969 Act of Free Choice. Under Suharto an authoritarian management style became entrenched. Dissent by workers and the local Papuan landowners were repressed harshly by the military.
Secondly, Indigenous West Papuans’ cultural, and economic livelihoods, which are dependent on a healthy natural environment, have been disrupted by Freeport’s arrival. It is no wonder that local communities resisted both violently and nonviolently to the company’s takeover of large swaths of their territory. In fact, Papuan resistance to Freeport has always been connected to Papuan resistance to Indonesia’s repressive "neocolonial" rule, which has now lasted over 50 years and according to Amnesty International resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people.
Alongside West Papua’s pro-independence movement are workers, both native Papuans and Indonesian migrants, organising for fair pay, basic rights to organise without threats and intimidation from Freeport management, and the provision of equal facilities for local workers as their foreign worker counterparts, including: housing, health care, education, and pension funds.
They are demanding the freedom to organise as workers, to strike and demonstrate without threats, intimidation, or interference from Freeport management or local police, and without penalty of receiving no pay or the risk of losing their jobs. Freeport has now engaged global security contractors Securicor (now G4S), to break the strike.
Union leaders are maintaining vigilant documentation of violations by the various security apparatus. Since resuming the strike, workers have received messages from officials via SMS, and visits to their family homes by Freeport staff and security who threaten to withhold pay and fire striking workers. Barracks near the mine’s entrance in Tembagapura were raided by officials, some whom were allegedly foreign nationals, who according to workers ordered miners to sign an agreement to end the strike.
The most disturbing incident was the attempted shooting of Union Chairman Sudiro while in his home on September 11, 2011 by "persons unknown", a phrase in Indonesia that is often shorthand for the Indonesian military.
In a significant escalation of resistance, leaders of the Amungme and Kamoro tribes — the two customary landowner groups who own the land Freeport is mining — are supporting the striking workers. Senior tribal leaders Anis Natkime, Canisius Amareyau, Viktor Beanal and youth leaders Jecky Amisim and Donny Emayauta have written to Freeport CEO James Moffett and Freeport President Richard Adkerson to ask the company to agree to worker’s demands.
Failing this the tribal leaders threaten to close Freeport’s entire operations from the Amungme highlands of the 4,200 metre high Grasberg mine down to the Kamoro lowland port of Amapare. In doing so, these leaders are throwing off decades of fear and trauma brought about by repressive Indonesian military operations in support of Freeport. Abuses include the forced removal of villages and massacres by Indonesian military and police personnel who have never been held to account.
Although Indigenous communities living in and around the site of the Grasberg mine are supposed to receive a percentage of the profits from mining extraction as a part of an agreement known as the "1 per cent fund" community leaders claim the funds, which are routed through Jakarta, never reach the local community. The fund has also created conflict and competition between tribes.
While there is no guarantee that workers and community leaders will achieve their goals or address long-standing grievances, the worker strikes have caught Freeport and the government off guard, and awoken them to the reality that they are no longer uncontested power-holders in the region. Instead they will be forced to shift their practices one way or another, or else face serious economic and reputational losses.
The strike also threatens to have much wider repercussions than mere pay rises. West Papuan independence leaders in other parts of the country are preparing to organise the third national gathering of Papuan resistance groups. These leaders are watching the events at Freeport closely. When the three-day Third Papua Congress opens in Jayapura/Port Numbay on 16 October you can be sure that grievances around Freeport will be high on the agenda.
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