Indonesia hit with mass strike over wage hike demands

Jakarta (AFP) - Tens of thousands of workers went on strike across Indonesia Thursday, in the latest industrial action to hit Southeast Asia's top economy as its citizens seek a greater share of the spoils from stellar growth.

Unions are calling for hefty pay rises as the cost of living skyrockets due to surging inflation, which has been driven up in recent months by an unpopular fuel price hike.

Factories producing everything from clothes to electronics, often for international companies, stopped operations as workers across the country downed tools on day one of a two-day strike.

Union leaders said that two million took part in the action across the archipelago.

Their figures are usually higher than those given by the police, who said around 60,000 had walked out in the capital and surrounding districts and there were also small strikes and demonstrations in other parts of the country.

Security was tight with more than 17,000 police mobilised in Jakarta and surrounding areas.

Thousands of workers in uniform marched past deserted factories in Pulogadung industrial estate in East Jakarta, led by a truck with people shouting from loudspeakers.

Hundreds of strikers rode motorcycles, waved banners and shouted: "Long live the workers" and "Raise our pay".

"I am not asking to live in a castle or sleep on a bed of gold, just for what we deserve from working so hard to contribute to the economy," said Achmad, 46, a welder who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

The protests were largely peaceful although police said that some windows were smashed and motorbikes pushed over in the industrial hub of Bekasi, just outside Jakarta.

Elsewhere, police said around 5,000 took part in the strike in Surabaya in East Java province, and 1,000 downed tools in Makassar on the central island of Sulawesi.

TV pictures also showed crowds striking in the industrial hub of Batam island, near Singapore, although police did not have an estimate of the numbers involved.

"All factories in Java's industrial hubs have stopped," said Said Iqbal, chairman of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Union, adding that the strike would affect 20 of the nation's 34 provinces.

With inflation hitting 8.4 percent year-on-year in September, Iqbal said ordinary people were deeply concerned over the rising cost of living.

"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."

Workers say they have been hard hit by the government's decision in June to raise petrol prices by 44 percent and diesel by 22 percent, a move aimed at reducing subsidies that were gobbling up the state budget.

Workers are demanding "just a decent pay raise to compensate for inflation", said Iqbal, adding: "We labourers have contributed so much to the economy, why are we trampled upon?"

Strikes and protests by Indonesian workers have been on the rise as they demand higher wages at a time when the economy is booming, clocking up average annual growth of above six percent in recent years.

Industrial action typical heats up in October and November as local governments decide on minimum wages for the following year in their areas.

Workers in Jakarta this year received a 44 percent increase in minimum salaries to 2.2 million rupiah ($200) a month, and others across the country have also received sizeable raises.

Jakarta is due to decide on its new minimum wage between November 1 and 20, according to Iqbal, who said unions were calling for it to be hiked to 3.7 million rupiah.

However employers have expressed concerns that big rises are denting profits and could lead foreign investors to take their business to neighbouring countries.

The government has also raised concerns about soaring wages, particularly at a time when growth is slowing, and there has been recent economic turbulence due to fears that the US may reduce its stimulus programme.

Nevertheless, Indonesian factory workers remain some of the lowest-paid in Asia, often earning less than their counterparts in China or India.