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Musim Mas Starves Union into Defeat

Posted to the IUF website 13-Jun-2006

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On June 12, the IUF and BWI jointly released the following statement on the "settlement" announced by the company and our determination to continue to struggle for the release of the Musim Mas 6.

Hunger is a powerful weapon in the hands of a ruthless corporation bent on using all means to undermine the right of workers to organize.

Since January of this year the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) and the IUF have been involved in an international campaign to support the workers who were victimized following a strike at the Pelalawan palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia owned by the Musim Mas company. Musim Mas is the world’s largest palm oil refiner. The company has now acted to exploit the desperate situation of the workers in response to increasing international support for the campaign.

In an effort to destroy a newly formed union - SP Kahutindo PT Musim Mas - Musim Mas fired at a stroke over 1,000 union members in retaliation for a strike in September, evicted the workers from their homes and their children from their schools and engineered the arrest and prosecution of 6 union leaders. These leaders are currently serving prison terms of 14 months to 2 years for the "crime" of trying to exercise their collective rights as workers.

Despite the company’s harsh tactics to break the union, a large number of the workers had been resisting Musim Mas’s efforts to have them sign off their rights and their union membership by accepting financial compensation for their illegal dismissal. Caught between a seemingly all-powerful company, a notoriously corrupt judiciary, family members to feed and children facing a future without schooling, the union informed us that some 200 workers who been holding out agreed on June 7 to accept financial compensation for the loss of their jobs. In exchange, the union agreed to drop all legal claims against the company, meaning that the mass dismissals cannot be challenged through the appeals process. The compensation amounts to some 123 US dollars per worker - the equivalent of 6 weeks' wages.

In addition, we have been informed that the six jailed trade unionists have signed individual agreements with Musim Mas. The agreements contain no provisions for their release, and state that the six union leaders have forsaken their right to pursue further legal channels to appeal and overturn their convictions.

The BWI and IUF are extremely concerned about the circumstances under which these agreements were obtained and the conditions of the trade union leaders' confinement in general. No prisoner, particularly one whose family is without support, can be said to engage in negotiations free from duress.

The timing of the agreement certainly comes at a propitious moment for the company and for the government of Indonesia. Musim Mas, which has a corporate representative on the Indonesian delegation at this year’s International Labour Conference (ILC) of the United Nations' ILO, has been displaying the agreements as part of an aggressive public relations campaign to highlight the “positive” industrial relations within their company. In a press release dated the same day as the agreements, Musim Mas gleefully proclaims that they are "pleased with the signing of the mutual agreement with Kahutindo. This matter was resolved in accordance with Indonesia's labour laws…and in compliance with all regulations in Indonesia.”

The government - under fire at the Conference for its serial violations of ILO Conventions on trade union rights - is similarly touting the agreement as a fine example of Indonesia's outstanding industrial relations. In the same press release which quotes Musim Mas, a Manpower Ministry official states that the agreement "will contribute towards more positive industrial relations in the palm oil industry. The industry has provided significant positive impact to social-economic development both at the national as well as the community levels."

These statements have to be reconciled with the reality of the firing of 1,000 workers, their eviction from their homes and schools, and the imprisonment of 6 trade union leaders now sleeping on concrete floors and completely dependent on the whims of their prison guards. Compliance with national law was achieved by paying out 123 US dollars and obtaining from the prisoners a "peace agreement" in which they renounce their right of appeal.

Affiliates of IUF and BWI around the world responded to our appeals with messages to the company and the government and with generous financial support (which will now go to the families of the imprisoned trade unionists). The campaign was clearly having an impact, as evident by the company's newfound willingness to meet with the union which they had previously refused to recognize and tried to destroy. It was at this critical point that Musim Mas chose to exploit the desperate situation of the workers.

The IUF and BWI strongly condemn the manner in which Musim Mas has exploited the circumstances of the victimized and jobless workers to compel them to sign an agreement which brings them no benefit and ratifies the company's brutality. The IUF and BWI strongly express their solidarity with and commitment to the workers, who since last year have struggled courageously against Musim Mas for their basic human rights and recognition of their trade union according to international standards of the ILO. We will continue to support these workers in whatever future actions they choose to take in fighting for trade union rights. No "agremeent" will deter us from continuing to campaign for the immediate release of the six imprisoned trade unionists. Free the Musim Mas 6!