Fighting for workers’, and women’s, rights in Indonesia

From scepticism and questioning to recognition and trust; Elly Rosita Silaban’s path to the leadership of a huge Indonesian labour union shows how the barriers for women unionists can be broken through passion and perseverance.

Feature | Jakarta, Indonesia | 01 June 2014
Profile photo of Elly Rosita Silaban. © ILO
JARKATA (ILO News) -  Another long night for Elly Rosita Silaban. It was almost midnight when she came home after a labour union meeting. Looking at her two sons, deep in sleep, she felt a sense of guilt. She tried hard to be a good mother and a good wife but as a union leader she sometimes had to leave her family because she had thousands of people’s needs to serve.

There are only a few women union leaders in Indonesia. In this relatively conservative society, women activists are perceived as unusual and 45-year-old Ms Silaban faces challenges her male counterparts never do. She got used to the snide comments, questioning her professional abilities as a union leader. But she also faced challenges at home; her family were not happy because most of the union meetings were held in the evening and women are not encouraged to go out after nightfall.

So, to make them understand what she did and why, she took her husband and children to some union gatherings. “I wanted my sons to know their mother’s job is not only cooking and doing laundry or working as a typist, but fighting for the rights of the labourers,” Ms Silaban said. “I want to make them proud of their mother as the leader of a mass [movement]”.

Simon Field, Programme Manager of the ILO’s Betterwork Indonesia Programme says her success is a valuable example for other women in Indonesia, and around the world. "Elly is such a big inspiration for women activists in Indonesia,” he said. “We hope more women would follow her suit and become leaders in labour movement".

Elly Rosita Silaban at workers rally. © ILO
Elly Silaban was born in a small town in North Sumatra in Indonesia in 1969. Inspired by her older brother, who is also a labour union activist, she began to participate in union activities when she was still a student. After graduating from college in 1994 she got her first job in a law firm in Jakarta. Her boss, Mochtar Pakpahan, was the chairperson of a labour union, Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia (SBSI). Under his guidance she quickly gained experience as a labour activitist. Later, she began to work for the Federasi Serikat Buruh Garment Tekstil (FSB Garteks) or Federation of Textile and Garment Workers Union.

Ms Silaban says she was not naturally an “iron lady”. However she tried to be always ready to learn. Finally she gained the recognition of her union colleagues. “I’m not a courageous woman and would easily burst into tears,” she recalls. “But I learn from my experience and over the years I’ve won the trust and support from union members to be their leader.” In 2003 she became the chairwoman of FSB Garteks, which has about 48,000 members.

They [women] should believe that it is possible for them to assume a position that is equivalent to their male counterparts.”
As leader she encouraged more women to take leading roles in union activities. She shared her own experience in discussions and education programmes. She organized opportunities for social dialogue and events to improve awareness of the important roles played by women in union movements. She also sought help from male workers, to support their female counterparts.

“The most important point that I always emphasize is that women should work to avoid being completely dependent on their husbands,” she said, recalling that it took almost 10 years for her own husband to appreciate what she does. “They [women] should believe that it is possible for them to assume a position that is equivalent to their male counterparts.”

Elly Rosita Silaban at workers rally. © ILO
She has also led her members in a wide range of activities to protect workers’ rights. These included rallies on the streets, demanding decent work for all workers. She also spearheaded talks with different factories when they refused to allow her union into their premises, and she organized training and workshops to improve sharpen workers’ skills.

But the work has not always been easy. On one occasion she led FSB Garteks, along with other labour unions, in a series of campaigns to increase of garment workers’ wages, which had not risen in line with the expansion and success of Indonesia’s garment industry. The campaign succeeded in raising wages in three provinces by 40 per cent, but subsequently a large number of garment workers were laid off and some factories closed. The experience led her to rethink and refine her approach as a union leader. “I believe we have to be more realistic in responding to this situation rather than expecting a garment factory to pay a significant wage, which is then followed by a factory closure in search for another production area in which the resources are more affordable. This will ultimately jeopardize the workers’ position”.

After 20 years in the labour movement and 10 years as a union leader, the fact that there are so few women union leaders in Indonesia makes her particularly proud of her achievements. There are still many things she wants to do, and she intends to continue her work with labour movements, and to encourage women, even when she is no longer a union leader.

“I wish to see that the prosperity of the workers finally come true,” she said. “I wish to see decent pay for decent living and I wish to see that happen through the fight we have started”.

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