Indonesia, Bangladesh workers battle low wages

At the end of October, both Bangladesh and Indonesia saw strikes involving millions of low-wage workers demanding substantial increases in their minimum wages.

Workers in Indonesia are demanding a 50 percent raise, which will bring the monthly wage in Jakarta up to nearly $330 a month. (Al-Jazeera, Oct. 30) Since each Indonesian province sets its own minimum wage, other provinces won’t see as much of an increase. But the national unions are still fighting for a countrywide percentage increase.

They realize that workers in “informal” jobs — service workers, domestic workers and others — making up about 60 percent of the work force, are outside the reach of minimum wage laws.

Indonesia has a major world economy and was one of the countries invited to the last G20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. Ever since a group of generals, with the connivance and cooperation of the CIA, overthrew President Sukarno in 1965 and carried out a bloodbath that included the slaughter of 500,000 people accused of being members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), workers’ organizations have operated under repressive conditions.

Currently, the union movement has achieved significant raises, securing a 40 percent rise in the minimum wage effective in January 2013. Rather than resorting to bloody repression, which was an option earlier, the bosses are threatening to move production to countries where wages are even lower, like Vietnam, Cambodia or the Philippines. (Wall Street Journal blog, Oct. 30) They are also investing heavily in automation.

Supporting the 50 percent raise, Marhasan, an Indonesian militant, told Al-­Jazeera on Oct. 30: “Workers are no longer isolated anymore. We are united and we are standing up for our rights.”

In Bangladesh, workers are demanding a 250 percent hike in the minimum wage, which will bring the monthly wage of garment workers to $102 a month. The government’s wage board, which sets the minimum wage, has not announced its decision, which is expected soon.

The output of the garment industry in Bangladesh is about $44 billion a year, amounting to 80 percent of the country’s exports. This industry has been fueled by the extremely low wages, which are some of the lowest industrial wages in the world. Bangladesh is the second largest producer of garments, after China.

Protests over poor wages, benefits and working conditions have gained in intensity since the April industrial disaster at Rana Plaza, where about 1,200 workers died. Strikes in September hit production at more than 500 garment factories — where clothes are made for top retailers such as Tesco and H&M — costing owners some $40 million.

These strikes over wages are occurring at the same time that an opposition party is also leading major political protests against the current government.