Jakarta. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pledged the government’s support to the cause of both workers and businesses, as Indonesia marked its first official celebration of International Workers Day on Thursday.
“May 1 is international Labor Day and Indonesia has chosen to make it a national holiday to honor workers as the heroes of industry,” Yudhoyono wrote on his Twitter account, @SBYudhoyono, on Thursday morning.
“This is our respect for our workers,” he added.
“The government will continue to develop pro-worker and pro-industry policies, including providing housing, transportation and health care for workers,” Yudhoyono wrote in another tweet.
He said that higher wages should come alongside economic growth.
Workers are fighting to raise the regional minimum wage by 30 percent for 2015 after a series of steep hikes to the current figure, which varies by province. The minimum wage in Jakarta for 2014 is Rp 2.4 million ($208) per month.
“The relationship between workers’ associations and business associations should be good and close,” Yudhoyono said. “All sides should ‘win.’”
The president said a civilized government needed to be fair in balancing the interests of workers and businesses, and stressed that in future wages and benefits for workers needed to improve.
He also called for a solution to the ongoing disputes between employers and workers over the minimum wage.
Thousands of workers gathered at key points around Jakarta on Thursday to mark International Workers Day, popularly known as May Day. This year marks the first time it has been recognized as a public holiday by the Indonesian government.
One of the main rallying point for workers on Thursday was the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle in Central Jakarta, from where thousands of workers marched north to the State Palace, calling for higher wages and better working conditions.
Police estimated that around 30,000 of workers from various unions from Jakarta and its satellite cities took to the capital’s streets on Thursday.
The rally’s main agenda was a 30 percent regional minimum wage increase for 2015, which would put the monthly minimum wage at Rp 3.12 million.
The wage hike from 2013 to 2014 was 10 percent, and came on the back of an unprecedented 40 percent increase between 2012 and 2013.
Workers and union leaders contend that the current minimum wages fail to provide for decent standard of living, but critics argue that substantial wage hikes force layoffs, discourage investment in the manufacturing industry and do not help the vast number of workers in the informal sector.
Some 7,000 police officers were deployed across Jakarta to monitor the rallies, with 3,000 of them assigned to the streets around the State Palace.
Police personnel were also deployed to the Hotel Indonesia traffic circle, Gelora Bung Karno stadium, the House of Representatives, the Vice Presidential Palace and along the protest route. Some 1,500 personnel from the Indonesian Military (TNI) were also deployed.
Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo — credited with helping facilitate the hefty 2013 wage hike just months after taking office in October 2012, and now running for president in the July 9 election — promised to prioritize dialogue so that workers would not feel compelled to take to the streets in traffic-paralyzing rallies to make their demands for better pay heard.
“That way, there will be no need for a rally on May Day every time [workers demand] a hike in the minimum provincial wage, because it’s just a waste of energy,” Joko said.
He was speaking during an audience with representatives of women workers, who handed him their “2014 black note” — a petition urging him to take action against workplace discrimination.
The workers, representing the Women’s Action Committee (KAP), said they had seen no significant progress for female workers during Joko’s time in office.
“Discrimination on hourly wages and unpaid overtime has been [an ongoing problem],” said KAP member Listiyowati. “There’s no menstrual leave and maternity leave. After [mothers] deliver babies, their contracts are terminated.”
Under Indonesian labor law, companies are required to provide two days of paid leave per month to menstruating women. Indonesia is among a small group of countries — along with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan — that offer so-called menstrual leave, although the policy is controversial and sometimes absent in practice.
The workers also asked for greater protections for domestic and migrant workers, the large majority of whom are women and who, because they work in the informal sector, lack the protections afforded to formal sector workers and are not eligible for the minimum wage.
Joko said he took the demands seriously and would fight for decent jobs, fair wages and safe conditions for women.
“The most important thing is that I know and understand, and hopefully can fight for [women],” Joko said. “There are many basic problems that have not been solved because of the absence of laws.”