Ari Sunariyati is assisting hundreds of woman laborers in Jakarta to develop leadership skills. She is planning to educate many more workers across Indonesia on their rights, aiming to grow a true labor union that is led, managed and handled by workers that can represent the needs and interests of laborers.
Ari was born in a small town in East Java in 1952 to a middle-class family. Her father worked as a forester in the state-owned forestry company, Perhutani, while her mother used to work as an elementary school teacher. Ari is the first of four children. Her concerns in defending the rights of the less advantaged started early in life. As a pupil in the elementary school, she often "stole" pencils from her father for her friends who were the children of poor farmers and did not have color pencils. Her propensity to "right the wrongs" also showed up in elementary school when she was elected to manage the school cooperatives. She discovered that the school was charging the students almost twice what it was paying for their supplies. After what must have been a fascinating discussion with the teacher, she got the prices reduced. In junior-high school, Ari stood up for a friend who was denied her right to be on the school volleyball team because she didn't have the money for transportation to an away match. Ari managed to convince the teachers and the principal that her friend should be included on the team. With a degree in business administration, Ari began working in 1974 as an assistant manager in the personnel department of a textile company. Here she became aware of labor abuses and began counseling the workers. When she was confronted by her boss, she gradually managed to convince him that the company should treat the laborers differently. Her close relationship with the workers won her election by acclamation from the laborers in 1979 to be the leader of the factory labor union. That year she was also elected to be a member of the Indonesian Workers Federation and proposed that the federation should have a department on education and training. The suggestion was refused. So Ari started to organize her own training, quietly, every Saturday and Sunday, moving about to find appropriate space and to avoid the feeling of being spied on. In 1983, Ari resigned from the company to pursue her vision of creating a new generation of leaders for Indonesia's women and workers.
Woman laborers make up the most vulnerable group in the industrial workforce. Not only are they paid lower wages than men, but they have fewer rights as well. They receive no wages during maternity leave or when they have to be home because a member of the family is ill. Despite consistent violations of labor law, female labor stays quiet. Ari believes the cause of this situation is laborers' ignorance of their rights and how they are protected by labor law. Another factor, according to her, is the lack of a labor union that is led, managed, and handled by workers - a union that can voice the needs and interests of laborers. Ari is developing an education program to inform laborers about their rights and about strategies to take when dealing with work disputes; simultaneously, she is raising their awareness about their significant role in industry and preparing them to be true labor leaders. To do this effectively, she and her friends set up "Ponkok Wanita Pekerja," or Shelters for Woman Laborers. They function as centers for education, information, and training. The shelters also offer practical courses in new skills such as sewing and cooking. There are currently two shelters in South and North Jakarta, which are to be followed by two others in Sukabumi and Surabaya. Ari's dream is that one day Indonesia will have a labor union led, organized and managed by the laborer, so that it can be an organization that really voice the interests and needs of the laborer.
The Indonesian government has decided to move into the "industrial era." This policy has many implications to the labor world. Becoming an industrialized country also means opening its doors wider to foreign investors. One attraction for foreign investors to invest their capital in developing countries is the cheap labor in developing countries. Eighty percent of Indonesia's workforce has no more than an elementary school education, and they are essentially unfamiliar with labor laws. In addition, many laborers feel uneasy about the words "labor union" because of the experience in the 1960s when the Communist Party used them to voice their interests. These reasons, combined with a culture that seeks to minimize conflict, explains why workers are so vulnerable to exploitation. (The settlement of work disputes is now based on regulations issued by the Ministry of Manpower that Ari believes violate the labor law.) There are legal education programs in Indonesia, even on national television. But these focus on teaching people the rules they should obey. Ari's job is different. She prepares people to take charge of their own lives and to know how to use the law as a shield to protect them.
Ari is seeking to develop a new generation of worker leaders, especially among women. One of her key tools is the dialogic, participative approach to training on labor issues built up over her 12 years of experience in labor training. She channels her work through her Shelters for Woman Laborers. The two shelters in Jakarta already have over 600 members, many of whom Ari expects to become leaders in the near future. These shelters are already managed by former laborers Ari discovered and trained through a series of women worker discussion groups she's run since 1982. In addition to the sewing and cooking classes, the shelters also offer a health service and a savings system that promotes better money management. The shelters also have libraries, which, to the program's surprise, have attracted children to the shelter. Ari has taken advantage of this situation by creating play groups and organizing child nutrition and enrichment programs. Ari plans to make the shelters a national model. She would like to build new shelters in places where there are large concentrations of women workers, such as Bali, South Sumatra (Palembang and Lampung), and East Kalimantan.