Defiant Indonesian Labour Leader Forges Ahead

By JOHN MCBETH - March 8, 2001 (Far Eastern Economic Review)

IN JUMPER, SKIRT and sandals, Dita Sari looks more like a rural
schoolteacher than a trade unionist. But working out of a converted house in the
backstreets of east Jakarta, the 28-year-old former political prisoner and
university drop-out is rapidly emerging as a key figure in Indonesia's
fledgling labour movement as it struggles to emerge from three decades of
stagnation and oppression.

For a woman who found her calling in Indonesia's underground and now goes
about her work with missionary zeal, the big pink and white Amnesty
International poster on her office wall probably says it all: "Hands Off
Dita Sari." It was printed back in 1996 when Sari was beginning a six-year jail
term for organizing what was then an illegal strike in the Tandes industrial
district of Surabaya, Indonesia's second-biggest city.

Two years before, at the tender age of 21, Sari had formed the National
Front for Indonesian Workers' Struggle in defiance of then-President Suharto's
laws forbidding independent labour movements. Using the same secretive methods
she learned as a pioneering member of the left-leaning People's Democratic
Party, she now set about running the National Front from her cell -- initially at a
detention centre in the East Java city of Malang and later at the Tanggerang
Women's Prison on the outskirts of Jakarta.

In the end, Sari served only half of her sentence, thanks to the collapse of
Suharto's New Order regime in mid-1998. But her time behind bars steeled her
resolve. Today, her union has 22,000 members (about half of whom pay dues)
in 14 provinces across Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and Bali. Most are
women working in factories producing textiles, shoes, food and beverages.
But she's just taken maritime workers into her fold and she makes no secret of
her ambition to build as big a union as possible.

Born in Medan, North Sumatra, to middle-class parents, Sari moved in 1988 to
Jakarta to finish high school and studied law at the University of
Indonesia. Her political activities, starting with small campus discussion groups, and
her prison sentence ensured that she never completed her degree. But she
doesn't seem to have any time for regrets.

Although then-President B.J.Habibie embraced freedom of association and
other International Labour Organization resolutions in 1998, it was another two
years before she got around bureaucratic roadblocks and finally succeeded in
registering the National Front. First it was the Manpower Ministry's refusal
to allow the union to base its constitution on social democratic principles,
rather than Pancasila, the state ideology. Then the bureaucrats complained
about the "political words" in the manifesto. "It took three ministers
before we were recognized," she says.

Sari claims to have no political ambitions and says that two years ago her
union made a conscious decision to stay away from party affiliations. But
those attitudes could change if the labour movement is able to consolidate
over the next five years and become a force for change. "Running a union is
not going to be enough for Dita," says a Western labour analyst, who has
followed her career. "I think she can probably look forward to being a
leader in the political field."

In some ways, Sari says, things were simpler under Suharto -- "there was no
horizontal conflict then, everything was the state or the military against
the people." Now she points to a confusing picture: remnants of Suharto's
New Order, what she calls "false reformists," President Abdurrahman Wahid and
his political manoeuvrings and a divided student movement. But, there is also
the sense that she wouldn't have it any other way.