IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes

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12 - 14 July, 1998
Bandung, Indonesia

Economic Impact of the Crisis on Labour

A Workshop on 'The Economic Impact of the Crisis on Labour' was organized by AKATIGA, (Research Centre for Social Analysis) based in Bandung, CLARA (Amsterdam), and CASA (Amsterdam) and was held in July 1998 in Bandung. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs provided financial support.

By Ratna Saptari


The workshop was held with three aims in mind, namely: a) to bring together concerned scholars and socially committed activists so as to come to a better understanding of the direct and indirect impact of the current economic crisis in East and Southeast Asia. The focus should be on workers, social and economic conditions in the various sectors; b) the workshop should serve as a preliminary step towards a more in-depth research on various dimensions of the crisis; c) to think of strategies to improve the bargaining position of workers in the urban and rural areas.

The workshop brought together a good mix of activists and scholars from Indonesia and the region, namely Malaysia and the Philippines. Although initially our plan was to invite no more than twenty-five activists and researchers, ultimately we ended up with a total of forty-three participants from Asian NGOs, universities and scientific institutions, and from international agencies. Representatives from the Indonesian, Dutch, and United States governments were also present. Seventeen papers were presented in the two-day sessions. Because of the large number of participants and the limited time available, after the introductory and general overviews the sessions were divided into two working groups. The languages spoken were Indonesian and English
The bulk of the programme was spent in identifying the issues and problems faced by the researchers and activists alike, who work in the urban and rural areas of Java, North Sumatra, and Eastern Nusa Tenggara. The presentations showed commonalities but at the same time differences in experiences of and responses to of the urban/rural poor in Indonesia; and the organizations facilitating them. Considering the complexity of the issues it was felt that there was too little time to compare notes and to reflect on each other's experiences. The breaking up of the workshop into two groups helped to focus the issues slightly. It was felt that many more discussions were needed to tackle each point raised.
Since the crisis in Indonesia for the working classes is experienced primarily in high food prices and the dramatically high level of unemployment, or underemployment, discussions on the workers' situation concentrated on what the crisis has meant for levels of consumption and employment and how workers have reacted to the situation. Studies on labour relations therefore cannot be divorced from studies on strategies of survival. This also has significant implications for organization.
The comparisons with other countries in the region (i.e. Malaysia and the Philippines) showed that the effect of the crisis was not the same. Not only the nature of each country's integration into the global market, but also the internal workings of the state, differed. In the Indonesian case, it could be seen how the higher degree of state corruption and political repression in Indonesia exacerbated the nature of the crisis. This also affected the kind of civil society that has emerged which is quite different from that in Malaysia and the Philippines. The issue of migrant labour brought up the problem not only of distinct government policies, regarding immigration and emigration but also of the commonalities and differences among Asian migrant labour, in this case Philippine and Indonesian. It also brought up the integrated nature of village level dynamics, government policies and international markets. The drastic increase in unemployment raised the issue of return migration and its impact on the village economy; also important is the extent to which the village economy can support those without an income. Therefore the nature of urban - rural links and how this has developed in the economic crisis was another issue we knew too little about as organizers and as researchers.
Workers' activism varied in the different regions and there was no clear analysis on how and why these variations existed. Should this be linked to the nature of the labour market in the respective areas, the nature of workers' organizations existing prior to the crisis, or the level of repression enacted by the local apparatus? There was still no knowledge of sectoral differences in industrial workers' plight. Do we know enough of the diverse community structures to formulate appropriate strategies for mobilization or provide recommendations for policy makers? The discussion on the rural areas brought the same kind of questions. In the rural areas, although protests occurred against village heads, no parallel level of activism could be found. This brought up the question of social institutions available in the village. After 30 years of Suharto's top-down rule, what are left of village institutions that could provide some form of social security for rural people? From these discussions, the need to bridge the gap between researchers and activists was also felt as activism cannot be well planned and formulated if knowledge of an issue or an area is based on superficial information; on the other hand research cannot be useful enough if not sensitized and put into perspective by political activism.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No.17 | Institutes