Striking Mine Workers Face Death Threats

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At 10pm on 11 September, the chief negotiator in West Papua’s ongoing Freeport strikes was sitting alone on the veranda of his house. Sudiro had spent all day with Freeport Indonesia management, bargaining for a wage rise for the members of his union — the All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI) Freeport division. Suddenly a bowl that was sitting on a table close to him was hit by a bullet and shattered. The shot was a clear warning to Sudiro: if he continues to fight for wage parity for the workers at Freeport’s Grasberg mine, he will be killed.

"I was surprised when I got home that night and told that our leader was shot [at]," Albar Sabang from the SPSI told New Matilda in a phone interview. "We don’t know who shot him. The gunman used a silencer."

The shooting took place on the same day the union received a letter from Freeport management requesting the union "not propagate a strike action and recruit workers to join the strike".

Talks between the SPSI and Freeport management over the 2011-2013 contract terms took place from 21 July to 19 August this year. The parties failed to reach an agreement and the deadline was extended to 26 August with the same result. In the beginning the union bargained for a wage increase from US$1.50-$3 to US$35-$200 per hour. This demand was decreased to $30-$100 per hour during negotiations, and is now at $12-$37.50 per hour. Last year, the company gave the workers only a 3 per cent wage increase.

As the negotiation went into deadlock, the union called a month-long strike, which started on 14 September. The strike now continues for a second month and this week Freeport was forced to halt production at the mine after a pipe carrying gold and copper to the port was severed.

The workers demand a parity wage with their comrades who work in other Freeport mines in North and South America. Freeport workers in West Papua receive the lowest wages of all Freeport workers — lower than workers in Mongolia or the Congo.

In a letter that was forwarded to New Matilda, SPSI argues that their demands are based on the fact that Freeport Indonesia has profited more than its sister companies in Peru, Chile, Arizona and New Mexico. Their skills are equivalent to their fellow workers in those mining areas, and profit margins are believed to be as high as 60 per cent. Their working conditions are harsher and more dangerous, and the price of gold, copper and silver has significantly increased.

Freeport’s Grasberg mining complex is one of the world’s largest single producers of both copper and gold, and contains the largest recoverable reserves of copper and the largest single gold reserve in the world.

In an interview via email, Sabang describes the terrain and working conditions at the mine:

"The mining area is located up to 4200 metres above sea level that require the workers to take an hour journey by busses, and trams. The weather in the area is cold, and misty, especially in Grasberg open pit area, and rains heavily all day. They have to wear four layers of clothes to work. They have to work five days to seven days a week. They have to work up to 10 hours a day. For those who work in the Maintenance Department, sometimes have to work from 12 to 14 hours a day."

From the beginning of the negotiations, relations between the two parties were uneasy. In a letter to the Indonesian Minister of Mining and Energy dated 16 September, Freeport management accused the union of "intimidating and threatening those who did not participate in the strike". The letter also said that the workers’ demand to have to have a "wage increase equals to workers in the developed countries is irrational".

The letter continues: "If [the wage increase]takes place it will affect our national economy, as [it]will create high inflation and our country competitiveness in the international market."

In the same letter, Freeport management told the minister "to avoid a great loss, it will recruit temporary workers to replace those who were on strike". These workers are to be employed in the operational field and maintenance.

In his reply to Freeport management dated 21 September, the director general of coal and minerals, Thamrin Sihite, said the Indonesian government "understands the situation, and allow Freeport Indonesia to use sub-contractors to replace the striking workers". This decision resulted in the death of one worker, Petrus Amayiseba, and 10 others were injured when the police (who had been hired by Freeport) opened fire at them during a scuffle on 10 October when striking workers tried to prevent replacement workers from travelling to the mine. Amayiseba’s death triggered solidarity protests across Indonesia and was condemned by Amnesty International.

There was another shooting incident on 15 October when a busload of workers was riddled with bullets and three workers were killed. On the same day, Leo Wandagau, a 34-year-old striking worker who was a victim of the shooting incident on 10 October, reportedly died in the local hospital.

Since the shooting incidents union officials have received threats from the police. On 11 October, the police commander in Mimika, Edward Siregar, allegedly told Sudiro "let’s see who is more powerful, your organisation or the police. I will finish you and your followers off".

The strike has had a huge impact on Freeport Indonesia’s operation. It is reported that the company has lost 1361 metric tons of copper and 5000 ounces of gold a day because of the strike. As well, the Indonesian government is reportedly losing about US$8.2 million dollars a day in taxes, revenue and dividends.

Unlike Freeport, which only pursues an economic interest, the Indonesian government also has political interests in the region. The Freeport mining area has been used by the government as a foreign diplomacy bargaining chip against the West Papuans’ desire for independence. For the Indonesian military the mine has also been a source of revenue.

Al Jazeera reports that Freeport has illegally paid individual soldiers and policemen to secure the Grasberg complex and its staff. A report by Global Witness revealed that an additional $10 million had been paid directly to individual military and police commanders between 1998 and 2004. This included payments of $247,000 between May 2001 and March 2003 to General Mahidin Simbolon, who was responsible for the 1999 East Timor massacre, and monthly payments throughout 2003 to the police Mobile Brigade, which is known for numerous serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.

During the strikes, Freeport management has intimidated the workers via local media and text messages and visited the workers’ houses and asked them to go back to work.

Now, they have also employed the private British security firm Securicor — which merged with Group 4 Falck in 2004 to form G4S (Group Four Securicor). G4S came to prominence in Australia in 2008 over the death of an Australian Aboriginal man, Mr Ward, in the back of one of its transport vans. The firm has also been the subject of controversy over its treatment of immigration detainees here.

An SPSI official told New Matilda that Securicor officers have intimidated the striking workers and operated beyond their working areas. SPSI also said that on 23 September Securicor and police officers went to the SPSI office in Freeport to arrest one of the members, Jimmy Deda, but were stopped by other workers. On the same day Securicor and Freeport management brought in temporary workers to replace the striking workers in Mile 38.

In response to their prolongation of the strike action, Freeport Indonesia has sacked all SPSI officials and taken over SPSI headquarters at the mine. In a letter dated 5 October, management wrote to Sudiro, "We would like to request a house on Tembagapura St number. 380 that was provided for SPSI last year by October 8. If the house is not emptied, we will pack all documents and stationaries".

The workers’ struggle in Freeport is a struggle for justice; a struggle that is shared by many West Papuans. It is a struggle against greed and the powerful elites in Jakarta and Papua that have made West Papuans poor. The natural resources have become curse for the local population. For this reason, the seven tribal chiefs who represent the population of Freeport areas wrote a letter on 25 September to support the striking workers. They too threaten to "close the mines" unless the workers’ demands are met.

New Matilda

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