Discussion summary: union organizing in the palm oil plantations

by | Sep 29, 2020 | Labour, Organizing, Study

Palm oil plantation has been widely reported for practising various forms of human rights abuses. Given its characteristics of being located in remote area with social isolation in a massive land size, plantation is a ‘suitable’ place for harboring illegal practice of labor employment and human rights violations where there is a lack of state and public monitoring on what is occurring inside the plantation.

These characteristics also contributes to the lack of public knowledge and campaign on workers’ issue, compared to the campaign on environmental and land issue, where the plantation workers are tend to be largely fragmented and unorganized.

However, the palm oil corporations do not necessarily have absolute control over workers. There are numerous workers’ struggle, both spontaneous and well-organized in demanding their very rights. There are some success stories where workers, who are mostly employed under casual and temporary status, being promoted as permanent workers or achieving collective bargaining agreement that improve the welfare.

In order to understand workers’ organizing, its difficulties and learning points, Koalisi Buruh Sawit (Coalition of Palm Oil Labor) and Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity (TPOLS) Network initiated a discussion on September 19th. During the discussion, participants mainly from trade union and workers’ organizer and NGO were sharing their experience in building workers’ power. The discussion was also designed as a forum for different union organizations to learn from each other and establishing cooperation and solidarity network.

Trade unions participated in the discussion are Serikat Buruh Perkebunan Indonesia (SBPI) in North Sumatra, Serikat Pekerja Nasional (SPN) East Kalimantan, FSPM ASD Minamas, FSP PMK Minamas Kalsel, FSPM Sinarmas Kalsel, FSPM AP Minamas Kalsel, Serbundo, FSPBUN Rajawali EHP Kalsel, Serikat Buruh Sawit Sejahtera (SBSS) in South Sumatra, and SBMI NTT. Some environmental and labor NGO participated in the discussion are Equalizer, LIPS Sedane and Sawit Watch.


Organizing challenge

Working conditions in the palm oil plantations are an important starting point to understand the way the workers’ organizing is possible. One common practice of employment across palm oil plantations is the recruitment of casual and temporary labor who are mostly migrants from different islands in Indonesia. In several plantations in East Kalimantan for example, around 80% are migrant workers, where almost half of them are from East Nusa Tenggara, as estimated by SPN union. Other migrants also comes from Lombok, Java and Nias islands.

The large proportion of migrant workers employed in the plantations are facilitated by non-direct recruitment practice by most company. The company take advantage of the established family migration network by ordering field supervisors to act as middlemen to recruit workers from his/ her hometown. The company may also use labor contractor to supply the needs of labor supply.

One FSP BUN Rajawali union organizer raised this issue. His union has been questioning this model of non-direct recruitment to the company. The union aware that such recruitment practice is problematic and causes workers not to have a direct working relationship with the company.

In different context, where the workers cross the borders and working in the plantations in Malaysia, they become undocumented as the recruitment go through informal procedure facilitated by family migration network—as addressed by one organizer from SBMI union during the discussion.

In a situation where the plantation workers are fragmented between local and migrant workers, union organizing become a challenging task. In building workers’ power, SBPI, SPN and FSP BUN Rajawali union often being confronted with the local communities—who represent little proportion of the plantation workforce—who are paid and mobilized by the company to undermine organizing attempt.

Non-direct recruitment practice has also made it possible for the company to shifting the responsibility of fulfilling workers’ right to the labor contractor or middlemen recruiter. In SBSS case for example, the union is not recognized by the company. All SBSS union members are casual workers who employed non-directly, but by the labor contractor. The company argues that the SBSS union should negotiate with labor contractor as their ‘employer’, rather than with the company itself.

However, all challenges in union organizing is not a given situation. One key learning points arising from the discussion is how to build a connection between local and migrant workers. One successful organizing method is to recruit person from local community as part of union membership. Another important note addressed by one participant is how the union could gain sympathy from the local community to become their ally.

In addition, despite workers’ are employed indirectly, there have been stories where the casual workers successfully recognized as full-time company’s employee and promoted as permanent workers. SBPI union and FSPM Sinarmas union has won over its demand to promote their union members to become permanent workers.


Success story and key learning point

SBPI in particular shared their success story in winning their demand. One key aspect of building workers’ power, based on SBPI experience, is how to solidify union members and create a sense of solidarity between the workers. This can be done by equipping workers with knowledge and having intense interaction and personal relationship. These efforts could build self-confidence and a strong sense of solidarity between the union members.

Participant from SBPI union reflected the long process of building his union power in one plantation in North Sumatra. The first attempt was started in 2009 by organizing a small discussion group to equip workers with basic knowledge on basic rights and freedom of association. It was only after three years of intense and routine discussion the union managed to openly confront the company and pushing their demands.

With a strong union foundation, where the sense of solidarity between the workers are established, many attempt by the company to undermine workers’ organizing could be tackled. One notable experience is when the company tried to dismiss several key union organizers. At the time, everyone in the union agreed to leave the plantation together if their friends would be dismissed. This action would cause big loss for the company being unable to run the plantation.

The union managed to win over its demand. Not only 200 casual workers got promoted to permanent, the union members also got paid in accordance with the statutory minimum wage.

Other participants shared similar reflection with SBPI experience in organizing workers. One organizer from FSP PMK Minamas also raised the issue of the importance of building democratic participation among the union members in building the collective power. He argues that the union should have activities that would bring workers’ active participation and collective learning. There should be a routine meeting between the union members to coordinate and create a sense of togetherness.


One important reflection brought into the discussion is how the plantation workers could expand their solidarity network across the plantation. Different plantations within one company may have different working conditions. For example, even though some unions in Sime Darby and Sinar Mas company in South Kalimantan has successfully improved the working conditions, workers in different plantations might still face extreme precariousness.

This reflection is especially important given the expansion of palm oil plantations to the eastern part of Indonesia, such Sulawesi and West Papua. Reports from many civil societies has shown how the workers in these new planting area are working under poor conditions with no presence of the independent union. Therefore, it is necessary for the union to expand their membership to different plantations.

Another reflection is how to build cross-sectoral solidarity, especially between the workers, local communities/ indigenous folks, and environmental justice groups. There is a rare cooperation between these three groups who share the same concern of the way the palm oil industry operates.

It is necessary to develop strategy to establish strong cooperation and solidarity network, between workers across the plantations and between workers, local communities and environmental justice groups. The organizing attempt should be continued, by providing knowledge for the workers and expanding the cross-organizational collaboration.

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