Perched on the western rim of the Melanesian Pacific, adjacent to independent Papua New Guinea is West Papua. Here, in a land so diverse that you can stand on a tropical glacier 15,000 feet high and peer down on the equator, indigenous Papuans are waging a four-decade long nonviolent struggle for independence from Indonesia. At the heart of Papuan grievances lies Freeport, the world’s largest gold and copper mine, owned and operated by US based company Freeport McMoRan and their Indonesian subsidiary PT Freeport Indonesia.
Recently trouble at the mine flared up again, as around 12,000 Indonesian and Papuan Mine workers and contractors went on strike, joined by local indigenous leaders. Walking off a job has never been so hard, Yan Ampnir told us. When he decided to join the mine workers’ strike in the remote Indonesian province of Papua, it was not a simple case of heading out the gate and driving home to his family. It involved a gruelling 40-mile trek down a roller-coaster road that plunges 8,400 feet down from the vertiginous cloud-cloaked mountain walls of Tembagapura, the remote mine base camp, to the sprawling swamp lowlands of Timika.
SPSI collection. Freeport Mine.
Tembagapura is a company town. The only people who live there are mine workers. After long shifts in the Grasberg open pit or in the underground mine, workers are bussed on four-wheel drive trucks back to Timika or the US lookalike suburb of Kuala Kencana, replete with shopping malls, manicured lawns and street lights, all carved out of the middle of the jungle. So, when the company refused to bus the workers outside the Indonesian military– guarded mine area, Ampnir and his compatriots picked up their bags and started walking.
Seventeen hours later the first group arrived in Timika; tired, wet, cold and hungry. Eight days later the strike ended. In the process some 12,000 mine workers (of a total workforce of 23,000) halted production at the world’s largest gold and copper mine, inflicting a loss of USD$95,000 per day on US-based Freeport McMoRan, Indonesian subsidiary PT Freeport Indonesia and their Anglo Australian partner, Rio Tinto.
After a quick search on the Internet, Albar Sabang, the local union branch secretary, hands us an excel spreadsheet. On it is a list of pay scales. Sabang is a mechanic who fixes heavy machinery like bulldozers and excavators. He has worked for PT Freeport Indonesia since 1994 and earns $3.00 per hour. He is one of the highest paid local employees out of a group PTFI calls “non-staff”. Others earn as little as $1.80 per hour, a wage that rose 98% after a similar workers strike in April 2007.
Sudiro (his only name) is a softly spoken tall Javanese man, unassuming in person. He is the local SPSI (Seluruh Pekerja Serikat Indondesia – or All Indonesian Workers Union) chair of the Freeport Mine Workers Union, an affiliate with the national SPSI network. Recently sacked by PT Freeport Indonesia for organising workers, he only just got his job back. “Of all the Freeport mines”, Sudiro tells us, “PT Freeport Indonesia is the most profitable. It has the lowest production costs. But workers are paid the lowest salaries. We are even paid less than Freeport mine workers in Mongolia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That’s not right.”
A history of local grievances
Freeport is emblematic of much that is wrong in West Papua.
The company’s Contract of Work was signed in 1967, two years before the Act of Free Choice was concluded, a referendum that was supposed to give the indigenous West Papuans a chance to say whether they wanted to be independent or part of Indonesia. In fact, there was no vote. Instead, 1,022 West Papuans, less than 0.01% of the population, were corralled into camps and told to “vote” for integration with Indonesia or have “their tongues cut out”. But it was not just the Indonesian government that consented to democratic fraud writ large; the US, Australian and European governments were also not prepared to contest the election or risk stability in the region for what one US Embassy source at the time called a handful of “Stone-Age illiterate tribal groups”.
SPSI collection.Strike Leaving Tembagapura.
The biggest prize of all was Freeport. Suharto declared the company a national asset and instructed the military to guard the mine, which led to a long history of human rights violations, including un-investigated mass killings, theft of Papuan land and massive environmental degradation, all of which has led to ongoing violent and nonviolent resistance.
This was the era before the notion of “free, prior, and informed consent” became best practice for extractive industries. According to local indigenous landowners, they still feel that they have not been consulted or their rights respected.
As the Amungme people’s sacred mountain is consumed, tailings are dumped in the Ajkwa River at the rate of 200,000 tons a day. The result: over 30,000 hectares of rainforest have been wiped out and huge levee banks built to stop Timika from being smothered by sludge waste. In the process, Freeport became a lightning rod for all Papuan grievances.
Although the company tried to respond to local indigenous West Papuan grievances by hiring Papuan staff and redirecting 1% of the profits to support members of the local seven tribes, new problems continue to be added on top of old, unresolved issues. The local tribes (a number of whom work in the mine) and Freeport mine workers from elsewhere bring in massive profits for the company. They work under extreme conditions at high altitude but feel like they have little stake in the company and few worker benefits.
“We are not valued as human beings. We are treated as an instrument of the company. Our goal is to get to a position where we are treated as human” says Sudiro.
According to miners interviewed in July 2011, many workers are forced to take out bank loans to pay for basic needs and to support their families. After retirement, some must seek alternative types of income. Yet when workers attempt to raise these issues with Freeport management, they have received warning letters from them in return.
“It seems like the company sees us as the troublemakers. But,” says Sudiro, referring to workers’ contributions to gold and copper production, “we are the solution-makers.”
SPSI finds its teeth
SPSI PT Freeport Indonesia is one local branch of the national labour union federation of Indonesia. The organization has represented PTFI mine workers in 16 Collective Labor Agreements (CLA) dating back to 1977. But until recently it functioned as little more than a rubber stamp for company policies.
Freeport has a history of suppressing workers’ rights and union organizing. Under Suharto, independent labour organising was prohibited. Those that tried were often killed or spent years in jail. But over the past decade, as political space has slowly opened up, Sudiro and other workers have been quietly organizing. But because of the closed-off nature of West Papua, they have done so through exchanges on the Internet, educating themselves on best practice and lessons learned from unions in other parts of the world. “We particularly admired the quiet, peaceful way Japanese workers raised their grievances,” said Sudiro.
SPSI collection. Strike Congregate at Tembagapura.
SPSI PT Freeport Indonesia’s mission and objectives are limited to workers’ rights and their tactics are exclusively nonviolent. But they continue to be associated with violence and separatism. “We use a peaceful way. We don’t want to get into the political arena, this is not our area. We just want to struggle for our rights, and to have the same rights as workers elsewhere.”
Campaigns to educate fellow mine workers about their rights and the role of unions in protecting workers seem to be paying off. Reflecting on worker participation in the recent strike, Sudiro said, “The workers finally opened their eyes and minds to the situation. The company cannot stop this. We have woken up. We will never go back to how we were treated before the strike.”
Nevertheless, SPSI Freeport members continue to face threats and intimidation from the company. When two of the union members travelled to Jayapura to seek advice from Papuan leaders, they were followed by Indonesian security forces who have long been paid by Freeport to guard the mine.
“The company does not like us organizing for workers’ rights, but we are not doing anything wrong. The strike is an action that is guaranteed by the law. Indonesia is a member of the ILO and the ILO is very clear. We have the right to form a union and we have done so according to Indonesian law” says Sudiro.
Article 104 (1) of Indonesian National Law Number 13, 2003 explicitly states: “Every worker/ labourer has the right to form and become a member of a trade/ labour union.”
The decision to strike
The company has utilized a range of “dirty” tactics to avoid dealing with SPSI demands over wages and conditions. One of the most galling for mineworkers was the creation of a ‘new’ union aimed at pushing out SPSI’s union. The new union was created in response to SPSI Freeport mineworkers’ agitation around wages and conditions.
At the same time the company declared the SPSI Freeport Mine Workers Union – an organisation that has grown from a low of 4,000 to 8,200 members – illegal, and promptly fired six of the leadership including Sudiro himself. The only problem was this ‘union’ had no members. Its board was appointed by Nur Hadiah, a lawyer based in Jayapura, in violation of SPSI regulations. “It was a completely fake union” said Sudiro.
The reaction from the workers? An overwhelming decision from all of the 254 union representatives to strike and nearly 100% participation from SPSI Freeport union members. “We were up against a wall. We had no other choice,” Sudiro said.
But the strike was not just about wages. “We wanted the company to recognise the union, the right to freely organise, and to reinstate the six SPSI Union leaders who were dismissed by Freeport for conducting union business” said Sudiro.
SPSI collection. A female striker
After more than a week of strikes and continuous demonstrations, on the evening of July 11 PT Freeport Indonesia gave in to SPSI’s
demands. They reinstated the union leaders without any deduction in salary, agreed to pay the wages of all striking workers for the duration of the strike, agreed to recognise SPSI Freeport Mine Workers Union as the sole legal representative of Freeport mine workers and also agreed to enter into Collective Labor Agreement negotiations. Those negotiations opened Wednesday July 20 at the Freeport-owned Hotel Rimba Papua in Timika. They are still continuing and according to Company sources are not expected to finish until 19 August. Both workers and management are remaining tight-lipped about their progress.
The seven tribes
The current (seventeenth) Collective Labor Agreement negotiations are different. They are not only about wages and conditions. They also concern the company’s relationship with local landowners, the Amungme and Kamoro, as well as five other major highland tribes – the Dani, Moni, Damal, Mee/Ekari and Nduga.
Amungme tribal elder Hengky Uamang speaks to us at one of the SPSI union leaders’ rented duplex house in the back lanes of Timika. His voice is quiet and one of his compatriots translates from Amungme into Indonesian so that we can understand what he is saying. His message is simple and profound.
“My heart is broken. It is as if we are not human beings but a piece of gold to be consumed. I am gold but I get no benefit.” Tears slowly roll down his face.
Others in the crowded living room become angry. “Does Moffet (the US Chair of Freeport McMoRan) have no shame?” Jecky Amisim rhetorically asks. “Does he not fear God? Don’t you people in America know that if you come to someone’s place and want to take something, you have to ask first?”
The seven tribal leaders nod in agreement. Sudiro tells us: “If these negotiations fail, we will see it as a death of democracy.”
“If Moffett and Armando Mahler (the president of PT Freeport Indonesia) can’t help us, if the wealth of these mountains do not bring a benefit to us the local tribes, the workers and the people of Papua,” says Mr. Amisim, “then it is better we just kick this company out.”
The strike may be over, but as union and management begin month-long negotiations over their biannual Collective Labour Agreement, the company continues to face the possibility of continued disruption from disgruntled workers and restive landowners seeking significant changes after years of opposition to Freeport mining.
“This article was originally published in the independent online magazine www.opendemocracy.net”
- Thousands of Freeport Indonesia mine workers start 7-day strike (westpapuamedia.info)
- RNZI: Difficult conditions remain for Freeport’s Papua workers (westpapuamedia.info)
- Tensions Increase Between PT Freeport Indonesia Employees, Authorities (westpapuamedia.info)
- Freeport Workers willing to meet and speak directly to James R. Moffett and Richard C. Adkerson (westpapuamedia.info)
- BBC: US Firm Freeport Struggles To Escape Its Past In Papua (westpapuamedia.info)