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Over 3mn workers go on nationwide strike in Indonesia
Thursday October 31, 2013 6:51 PM, IINA

Workers across Indonesia have begun a two-day strike demanding higher salaries, the latest industrial action to hit the South East Asian economy. The workers say their cost of living has gone up amid rising inflation and a hike in fuel prices.

According to unions' estimates, almost three million workers will take part in the industrial action. However, the actual numbers have come in lower than their forecasts in previous nationwide strikes.

"All factories in Java's industrial hubs have stopped," Said Iqbal, chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Union, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.

"Many workers who could not afford their rents have had to move out of their homes and live under bridges and in sewers. They are eating instant noodles instead of rice," he added.

Fuel prices in Indonesia have jumped after the government cut a huge fuel subsidy earlier this year. The move was implemented after months of political haggling and continues to remain unpopular.

Higher fuel prices have also led to a rise in consumer prices, which have grown at an annual rate of more than 8% in each of the past three months. Indonesia has been one of the fastest growing economies in the region.

The success of its manufacturing and mining sectors, powered by a low-cost labour force, has been a key driving force behind its expansion. However, as its economy has grown so have the strike actions by Indonesian unions who have been demanding higher wages and a greater share of the country's prosperity.

The actions have seen minimum wages rise in the country. Workers in Jakarta this year received a 44% jump in minimum salaries to 2.2 million rupiah ($200; £123) per month, and there have been hikes in other parts of the country as well. However, there are growing concerns that as workers demand even higher wages, profits at manufacturing facilities in the country may be hurt.

The worry among some is that a decline in profits, coupled with increasing strikes and a recent slowdown in Indonesia's economy, may see foreign investors stay away and further hurt the country's growth.

As the marchers approached there was a buzz in the air at the Pulo Gadung industrial estate in the capital Jakarta.

Young men danced around an open-top campaign van chanting the lyrics to pop songs blasting from the PA, whooping occasionally at young women passing on motorbikes.

Some had walked three hours from the neighboring city of Bekasi. The union members gathered as a warm up for the general strike on Thursday and Friday, when an estimated two million workers will walk out of factories nationwide.

There was optimism among the crowd that their central demand - a 50 percent increase in the minimum wage - would be met.

"Workers are no longer isolated anymore. We are united and we are standing up for our rights," says, Marhasan, a 32-year-old fridge assembly worker, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

The union movement has achieved significant momentum in recent years, securing a 40 percent rise in the minimum wage effective since January.

The minimum wage varies by province and is set relative to the standard of living. In Jakarta the minimum wage is now Rp 2.2m a month ($202.40) but in West Java it is only Rp 1.25m.

Despite being on the higher rate, Marhasan says rising prices, including a 30 percent hike on fuel in June, means he still cannot afford to send his two young children to school.

"We've not been able to pay for the last couple of months. We've had a verbal warning from the school and I don't know how much longer we will get away with it," he said.

Marhasan's home lies a short walk from the demonstration across littered scrubland. He sleeps on a dirty, sheet-less mattress in a barely furnished two-room bungalow. Despite the advances Indonesia has made in poverty-alleviation, for the vast majority life remains tough.

"Our wages might have gone up, but I don't feel like our quality of life has really changed," he said.

Marhasan is confident that outspoken union boss Said Iqbal - celebrated by workers as a hard-negotiating "man of the people" - will secure their wage increase, along with lifetime healthcare and a ban on outsourced labor.

"Why do we want to increase the minimum wage 50 percent? Indonesia has the second highest level of economic growth after China. It's one of the most important G20 countries. But the government and employer's association still have low-wage policies" says Iqbal.

"Indonesia has three times the GDP of Thailand, but our minimum wage is lower." Iqbal says

Indonesian workers deserve to benefit from the economic growth that they help to create. "If you work for 15 to 30 years and you're still poor then this is unjust, this is not equal. We need justice and equality," he says.

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