Friday, April 22, 2005

Labor Activist Reunion

In March 1994, I began to cover a labor strike at PT Duta Busana Danastri in Jakarta. I was then a cub reporter for The Jakarta Post. PT Duta Busana Danastri was then doing contract works for the San Francisco-based Levi’s Strauss jeans maker.

The coverage turned out to be a long one as it attracted the attention of the Indonesian Human Rights Commission. The company initially asked their women workers to take off their panties every time the workers asked for their menstruation leave. I wrote that down, prompting high ranking officials at the Ministry of Labor to look at the company. Levi’s Strauss also responded by immediately stopping their contract with PT Duta Busana Danastri.

Some labor leaders were dismissed. They included Sitti Nurrofiqoh, who was then a radical activist but with a mild manner. Jonathan Head, then the new correspondent for BBC, was interested in the story. Jonathan made a feature about these workers. Jonathan asked me to bring him to the workers’ neighborhood in the Palmerah area. Jonathan cannot believe the sizes of their boarding rooms –only two by two square meters in a house filled by more than 30 people. The alleys stink. They also have to buy water.

I became their friends. Nurrofiqoh, Karsih, Siti Purwani, Yani and many others. Sometimes they visited my also small boarding house in Palmerah. Fiqoh won back her job at PT Duta Busana Danastri. I also brought them to see a Levi’s Strauss counter at Pasaraya, a huge department store owned by Abdul Latief, a businessman who was then heading the Ministry of Labor. They cannot believe that a pair of Levi’s pants cost them their one full month salary.

We never met again after the company finally closed their factory in the Palmerah area. Abdul Latief did nothing to improve the working condition of Indonesian workers which included Nurrofiqoh and her friends.

The company moved their assets to an industrial enclave outside Jakarta. It hired a public relations company to approach my bosses at The Jakarta Post to stop reporting the story. One of my editors unfortunately listened to this approach. I cannot continue writing that story. Fiqoh also went to work in another company in Tangerang.

It was ten years ago.


We met again in mid-April 2005 when she knew my telephone number from someone else. I was so happy to know that they are still around in Jakarta.

Fiqoh (red shirt), Karsih (green shirt) and Nurasiah (white) visited my apartment. It was like a reunion. It saddened me to know that they are still working in industrial areas outside Jakarta with meager incomes. They have no savings. They are still labor activists. It saddened me to know that I have traveling all around the world. I received a fellowship from Harvard University. I moved to work with more interesting media companies but they are still here.

Fiqoh told me that I was the only journalist who covered that story from the beginning to the end. She also said that I am still “an idealist person” like the one that she knew. I am pretty proud of that. But one thing that I am not happy with. Fiqoh told me that I am fat now!

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