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Jan '03

Workers set for biggest anti-utility price hikes

Some 25,000 workers are expected to hit the streets of Jakarta on Thursday in what will likely be the biggest demonstration so far against the utility price hikes.

The protesters plan to assemble in front of the State Palace to demand the government of President Megawati Soekarnoputri call off the increases in fuel prices and electricity and telephone rates.

A huge turnout is also expected for rallies outside the capital.

“We will gather at the HI (Hotel Indonesia) traffic circle at 10 a.m, then march to the State Palace,” said Rekson Silaban, who chairs the central executive board of the Indonesian Prosperity Trade Union (SBSI).

He said the workers would come from various labor unions. Apart from SBSI, the National Front for the Struggle of Indonesian Workers (FNPBI), led by labor activist Dita Indah Sari, as well as the country’s largest labor union, the All Indonesia Workers Union (SPSI) will take part in the mass demonstration, which will cap a week-long protest against the price hikes.

SBSI chairman Muchtar Pakpahan said demonstrations would also be held across 20 provinces, drawing a crowd of at least 100,000.

Aside from protesting the utility price hikes, workers also demanded the government to drop its privatization policy and a plan to drop possible criminal charges against business heavyweights who share between them US$10 billion in debt to the state, said FNPBI chairwoman Dita.

She said the workers had earlier wanted to meet with President Megawati to press their demands, but the President refused to talk with them.

Although the protest has the backing of almost all labor unions, not every major association will join Thursday’s demonstration.

“We are a bit concerned about the size of the protest, as it can easily get out of control,” said Nazir Syarief of a federation of state company labor unions, representing over 200,000 workers.

The Association of Indonesia Labor Union, which claims to have a membership of some four million workers in various industries, will send only 100 of its members to Thursday’s protest, said union executive Saepul Tavip.

Both Nazir and Saepul stressed their unions’ support behind the protest, including demands to revoke the privatization policy and the release and discharge policy against state debtors.

The planned mass demonstration will be the largest so far in nationwide protests against the triple price hikes.

But now the front has widened to include other government policies that have irked the public over the past few weeks. Calls for Megawati’s resignation have grown stronger during these protests than in previous ones.

Analysts have said she might be facing the biggest public challenge against her leadership so far, but they added that it would unlikely be enough for her to step down.

The protest also marks the first time that workers joined hands with businessmen to protest a government policy, said former minister of manpower Bomer Pasaribu, who heads the Center for Labor and Development Studies (CLDS).

Business associations are lobbying the government to cancel or reduce the increase in fuel prices and electricity rates.

Meanwhile, students and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are also stepping up pressure on the government over the same policies.

“The timing was just bad, with all the other controversial policies not settled yet,” Bomer said, referring to the public uproar surrounding the sale of state international call operator PT Indosat.

He added that with the 2004 general election approaching, political parties would likely seize the moment to pressure the government. “I’m saying here that workers have bargaining power to at least get the government’s attention,” he said.

Analysts said legislators could criticize Megawati but would not go as far as to unseat her. A loose coalition between the country’s two largest political parties, one of which Megawati leads, would thwart any such attempts, they explained.

Rekson of SBSI said that Thursday’s demonstration would not be the last one and more would follow until the government listened to them.

“We’re still looking for a common voice in negotiating with the government,” he said, explaining that unions had to come up with different threats to make the government listen to them.

Sumber  :  (Berni K. Moestafa) The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

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