Monday, February 12, 2007

Building union culture in Indonesian press

kompas inside
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Bambang Wisudo )*

“Media company is not the same with transportation or shoe company that can be just bought and sold. Media company is not merely a commercial institution. It is mainly an idealism institution,” PK Ojong (1974), co-founder Kompas-Gramedia Group, Indonesian media conglomerate that published Kompas Daily.

FOR quite a long time, Indonesian journalists did not identify themselves as workers. During Soeharto regime Indonesian journalists were lull to sleep by identifying themselves as professionals that differed from other workers. To legitimize this, in 1984, the government ruled the media companies to give minimum 20 percent of its shares to their employees that were managed collectively. The Department of Information which controlled the press also claimed that journalists were not ordinary workers. Journalists served themselves as professionals and they had to become members of Indonesian Press Association, the sole journalists association that was recognized by the government. This situation created barriers for journalists and media workers to established trade unions.

In 1988, some journalists of Kompas Daily such as Albert Kuhon, Rikard Bangun, Irwan Julianto, and Maruli Tobing tried to establish a union and the faced repressive respond by the company. Kuhon was isolated and prevented to do his jobs as journalists, and the other three were given sanctions. Later, Kuhon retreated because of the isolation. In 1994, two Kompas Journalists Satrio Arismunandar and Dhea Perkasa Yudha were forced to retreat because of their involvement as members of board executives of Serikat Buruh Seluruh Indonesia, a progressive union that oppose to Soeharto.

Despite of the resistance among the workers and management to the idea of establishing union, two month after Soeharto fell down with few of my colleagues I try to establish a union. The changes of political environment and the enthusiasm of Indonesian people to establish unions and political parties helped me to asked my fellow workers to support the idea to establish union. Anyhow we had to accommodate the management consideration that the union is just an internal organization that its main function is to bridge the communication between workers and management. We even did not used the word of “union” but we used the term of “association of employee”, Perkumpulan Karyawan Kompas (PKK).

One of the aims of PKK is to clarify and negotiate the realization of 20 percent shares owned by the workers. By the time being, we continually tried to build PKK as a true union. We registered PKK to Department of Labor to meet legal requirement as an union. However the management resistance grew as PKK was built as union. In the year of 2001, I was prevented to do my jobs as journalists for a year liked it was happed to Kuhon. However the sanction was canceled after I protested bitterly with the support of Alliance of Independent Journalists. I then retreated as chairman PKK and the organization continued to negotiate with the management to realize the shares owned by the employee. Unfortunately after almost six year of negotiation it give no result. Therefore in 2005 I joined again as a member of broad executives of PKK. In the mid 2005, without any agreement of its workers, the shares of Kompas Employee were given back to the company and unilaterally conversed to profit sharing.

After some protests of unilateral decision to abolish the shares owned by the employees were ignored, PKK asked legal aid to some public lawyers. They then give legal warning to the management. This move make the company open the negotiation again. Because of the un-conducive situation since the workers were mobilized to stand against the organization, we accepted the idea to conversed the collective shares owned by the employee to profit sharing. However we succeeded that the company will give 20 percent of its dividend to its employee every year as long as the company exist and the changes of the commitment have to be asked to the workers for agreement.

Two month after the agreement, as the secretary of PKK, I was reassigned unfairly to Ambon, to Maluku. The chairman of PKK was also reassigned to Padang, West of Sumatera. The reassignment was directly connected with our role as union activists and it was against the labor law. Once again I protested bitterly to the decision and when I distributed leaflets to protest the decision, I was sacked violently and was under detention of the internal security for two hours and then I received illegal dismissal letter signed by Kompas editor in chief, Suryopratomo.

Two months after the incident, neither Jakob Oetama as president of the company or Suryopratomo ask forgiveness for the violence and the illegal dismissal despite the pressure from national or international communities.


PRESS worker union is quite a new phenomenon in Indonesia although embryos of press trade union have been established for quite a long time in some media companies. Despite there are approximately 1.500 media companies in Indonesia, the number of press worker unions in Indonesia are not more than 40. Most of them are not well organized, they do not collect membership fee, and can not legally represent the workers because the haven’t registered to the Labour Force Department. Just few of them have collective work agreement.

During New Order regime, there are some embryo of pres worker unions known as Board of Employees, Dewan Karyawan. It is pioneered by Tempo Magazine with the name of Tempo Board of Employees. It was founded in 1978 with the main objective was to create good working atmosphere in the company. The organization was not concerned on welfare issues but more focused on solving disputes between employees and management. Board of Employees was copied by some media companies, such as Jakarta Post, Gamma, and Gatra. Tempo Board of Employees has just recently registered to the Department of Labour Force.

Once Republika succeed in building its trade unions. The union was founded in 2000 under the name of PT Abdi Bangsa Board of Employees. They even succeed in negotiation collective work agreement with the management. However not long after its success the union leaders were forced to retreat, the union was co-opted, and now it don’t have strong bargain with the management. Radio 68 H can be mentioned as one of the media company that can live together its union.

Since its formation on 7 August 1994, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) have concerned in improving professionalism and welfare of press workers as well as struggling for press freedom. Welfare of press workers can be achieved gradually on condition that there is solidarity among the workers as well as a will to build a strong organization to represent the workers. To educate and promote union culture among press worker, AJI established Trade Union Division. Continually AJI campaign to journalists and press workers to form worker unions in their workplaces and train its member to become union activists. In Jakarta, AJI encourage the unions to establish a city-level networking.

The slow progress in developing press worker union in Indonesia, as I mentioned before, partly because of journalists in Indonesia tends to identify themselves mainly as professionals, not as workers, even the majority of journalists in Indonesia are low-paid. A recent study conducted by AJI Jakarta shows that there are still some journalists in Jakarta only paid Rp 250.000 (30 US Dollars) a month. That is far below the standard of salary for journalists in Jakarta Rp 3.200.000 (355 US Dollars). Only few of media companies that provide minimum salary Rp 3.200.000 for its journalists. Tempo Group can not meet the standard. However Radio 68 H can meet the standard because of its non profit orientation.

Why this such condition do not encourage Indonesian journalists to establish press workers union in their company? Despite demanding for better work condition to their management, most of them prefer to get extra-payment from their news resources. For many years, most journalists in Indonesia get money from their news resources known as “envelopes”. The “envelope culture” is so rampant among the journalists in Indonesia that many government and business institutions allocate their budget for bribing the journalists. However some idealistic journalists that get low payment try to get extra income by doing side-jobs.

The pragmatic behavior of the journalists in one hand and the reluctance of the media company to accommodate the existence of union is the main factor that make the progress of media worker union in Indonesia is so slow. Although the labour law 2001 declares clearly that anyone who prevent union activism would face penal punishment, the law is still toothless. Union activists are still vulnerable. Grand strategy to build press worker union, such as union training and campaign, establish network and federation of press worker union, legal protection and protection for union activist is urgently needed.

The brutal action of Kompas management in sacking its union activist have to be respond and has to battled legally. It is very important to show a strong message to all media companies that they have to respect the rights of their workers to raise their voice and to organize themselves.

*) Bambang Wisudo is journalist of Kompas Daily, Secretary of Compass Press Worker Union and Coordinator of Ethics and Profession Division, Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI)


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