Beyond the Red Circle: Notes on a Palm Oil Plantation Union Meeting in Indonesia

Author’s Note:

In September last year, I attended a group discussion with workers organised by a branch of SERBUK (People’s Labour Union) at a palm oil plantation company in the Sambas Regency of West Kalimantan Province, Indonesia. It was the first gathering of union members participated by the West Kalimantan SERBUK Regional Committee and Transnational Palm Oil Labour Solidarity (TPOLS) with which I am affiliated.

My observations of the meeting serve as a snapshot of the discussion, including the precarious and at times dangerous conditions of plantation workers, workers’ mistrust of the union and dispute among workers themselves as barriers to solidarity building, and the lack of women workers’ participation in such union meetings.

One afternoon in September 2022, a group of men in red shirts looked anxious. One of them paced back and forth checking the coloured banners. Another looked into a box full of cables and microphones with batteries. The rest, meanwhile, were going door to door, house to house, phone to phone, to spread the word: an invitation to a labour union gathering.

For labour unions in oil palm plantations, the invitation to gather with members in the afternoon is subject to the whims of fortune. If they are lucky, the planned meeting will be well attended by workers who are tired from a long day’s work and need a space to socialise. If unlucky, as when the meeting coincides with a religious recitation, party or workers returning home after payday, the union leaders can only sigh.

As the afternoon wore on, the head of the labour union suggested:

I think we’ll just wait another 30 minutes. The ladies are still gathering at the weekly recitation, while some of the men are still at the retiree thanksgiving. This is how life is in the middle of an oil palm plantation. We just have to understand each other.

That Thursday afternoon gathering at the community hall was an effort to build trust between the union and its members. For workers in the plantation, this meeting was the first time in a long while that workers had gathered to meet with their union.

In the past, workers have had a less than pleasant experience with company-controlled unions. Many workers felt disappointed and traumatised by such unions as their problems were ignored by the unions. In the meantime, the labour union has stumbled into problems of embezzlement of membership dues and severance pay cuts.

The scars of the accumulated disappointment and trauma are being felt today. Some workers are still reluctant to join a union. But others are beginning to cultivate enthusiasm to reunite after seeing the liveliness of the current labour unions.

As more time passed, the siren from the megaphone calling for a gathering grew louder. One by one, motorbikes were parked in front of the open hall. They pushed back their seats to enlarge the diameter of the circle, which was now so full that it reached the edge of the cement floor.

The circle was increasingly joined by men aged between 20 and 50 who arrived mostly in red and black t-shirts and shirts, with a few appearing in bright t-shirts embroidered with company crests. They easily mingled, while emphasising their identity as “company employees” or “SERBUK members”. Meanwhile, in the corners of the pillars huddled indigenous leaders and non-unionised workers, who were curious about what the union could offer. The chair of SERBUK SBA opened the meeting:

Good evening gentlemen. Let’s start by welcoming the regional committee and the labour solidarity network. The purpose of this meeting is to strengthen the union to prepare for the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to be won next year. Today, we can start by sharing working conditions. We can evaluate together for advocacy and improvement of working conditions. Hopefully, in the future this discussion will be on the weekly agenda of the trade union.


Expanding the Circle


One of the fundamental aims of oil palm plantations, from the colonial era to the present day, is to create a new world in which land, people and economic systems are under corporate control.1 Land that changes ownership becomes oil palm plantations. People become labourers, even in the fields that belonged to their ancestors. Unfortunately, there are not many options for work other than managing the narrowing land and later inevitably becoming labourers.

The presence of labour unions in plantation companies is a good start in seizing control. This comes with some challenges. The first is from various forms of company repression. Another challenge is internal to the labour force, namely the various vulnerabilities of each worker that can trigger movement fragmentation.2

That night, the majority of workers who arrived were “permanent daily employees”. These are employees who have been given permanent employee status because they have exceeded their daily targets and worked well for three years. However, each of them has a different wage that is calculated per working day based on the achievement of daily work targets and additional premiums.

To the naked eye, the difference seems non-existent. After all, these workers live in the same barracks, hunt mushrooms in the same garden blocks, send their children to the same school and leave from the same truck. However, a closer look reveals that labourers have diverse socio-cultural backgrounds, some of which result in hierarchies that lead to disputes.

Such is the case with the fertiliser crews (workers who sprinkle various types of chemical fertilisers) who have to work their way into the palm oil block on different tracks. A tired worker, concerned that he may be considered lazy, is reluctant to ask the foreman for help in getting permission to go home earlier than his friends. So, he persuades the other fertiliser workers to go home immediately and not take the premium that they may otherwise receive. Disputes arise among the workers who decide to keep working. Often, these disputes involve the sensitivity of ethnic identity and local versus migrant identity.

Instead of succumbing to identity issues, the evening’s discussion was sparked by a question that deliberately allowed each worker from various work positions, ages and ethnicities to express their working conditions based on their own experiences: “What are the challenges and hardships in the job you are doing now?”

The first question relating to the challenges of the workload made the conversation very emotional. The status of being a permanent employee does not prevent a worker’s health from deteriorating through overwork in the pursuit of higher work targets. It is not uncommon for these problems to be individualised, considered personal rather than shared and discussed with the union.

Take the story of an exhausted harvester (workers who harvest the palm fruit) who was forced to work on weekends and public holidays because his weekly targets had not been met. Reluctantly, he went to work on the plantation when it was quiet and thus faced various risks: not being supervised by the foreman, being attacked by wild animals and even being injured without anyone knowing.

In response, a loader (workers who transport the palm fruit from the harvest gathering point to the truck bed) shared another perspective of the harvester’s target-chasing work. In order to prevent the harvested fruit from rusting and rotting, loaders must immediately move the fruit from the gathering point to the truck, be it at night, on weekends, on red dates, or even in flood conditions. Unfortunately, many of them have to work with minimum lighting and often suffer injuries.

This workload issue is a scourge that creates problems between workers. Harvesters who are tired of their work are often prone to conflict with foremen and clerks. If not managed properly, it is not uncommon for this problem to be brought up in union discussions.

The chair of the SERBUK SBA returned to the discussion:

Gentlemen, this discussion is not about finding fault with harvesters, loaders, drivers, foremen and clerks. This discussion will help us get to know each other. Because there is only one problem: we are permanent employees, but we are paid from the yield. How can they treat us like that?


Get Out of the Loop


The struggle of plantation oil palm workers has a unique formulation related to their working closely together that cannot be underestimated.3 The struggles which arise from everyday problems give rise to the trade union movement. This makes unions a unique form of spatial solidarity that is close to local matters.

However, forming spatial solidarity from everyday labour problems on plantations is not easy. Labour unions have been able to discuss issues relating to wages and labour relations. Yet how should we act and respond to such conditions? Who should be held responsible?

Similar frustrations became more visible as the night wore on, which only made the circle more heated. Workers shared stories of low wages and premiums that are not worth the dangerous working conditions.

For workers, the physical environments of oil palm plantations seem alien, dangerous and inhumane. Rows of trees as high as two metres with fronds that reach another two to three metres are planted on peat soil, steep gradients and potential flood land. Unfortunately, the plots are often only connected to each other via slippery wooden boards. A harvesting worker wryly explained that “the road is just a wooden path. We (harvesters) carry the angkol through the wood like that. I can’t count how many times I’ve fallen. I don’t know who to complain to.”

The discussion circle reviewed how workers are vulnerable to injury and occupational illness. Harvesters and loaders are in danger of being cut by palm thorns, while fertilisers and sprayers are in danger from poisoning and various latent diseases, and even maintenance workers who cut down weeds and remove palm saplings need to be careful about disturbing the habitat of ground bees, snakes and cobras that can suddenly attack.

Gradually, voices of despair were heard. A worker felt that justice in oil palm plantations is difficult to achieve, considering that fighting for basic labour rights alone is now accompanied by the threat of termination of employment. It was difficult to imagine that the company would grant the right to a healthy and safe workplace.

Union leaders were frowning. They were now faced with a new challenge: redefining the basic labour rights issues in a way that makes the problem a shared responsibility. Labour issues are not only limited to wages, employment status, work bonuses and tax deduction mechanisms in the laws and regulations but also the entire working environment that should be healthy, safe and good for the sustainability of children and the environment.

It is clear to see how union leaders try not to rush to put forward their ideas. While thinking about the meaning of labour rights, they try to foster solidarity first. The target is to increase their numbers and be strong so that they don’t become martyrs and lose the war. They plan to win small victories, such as accelerating severance pay, pushing for road repairs, or switching extra food from condensed milk to more nutritious products. After that, put themselves in a good position in the collective bargaining agreement negotiation.


A Safe Circle with Strong Labour Solidarity Networks


For trade unions, the best organising model is to form unions whose members have the awareness to unionise. Organising workers in oil palm plantations has the potential to create strong alliances. Plantation workers are already concentrated in isolated geographical locations, can be involved in militant transnational trade union networks and are able to trace the supply chain of their products from plantations, factories, refineries, to finished products. At the very least, these three conditions can be a good starting point for unions to take action.

Speaking of solidarity with movements outside labour, that day the representative from the regional committee seemed to enjoy the dynamics of the discussion. After the opening and introductions, he was more of an observer to the discussion rather than spoon-feeding the union with his ideas.

One sentence he kept repeating was that it is important for workers to be unionised. And, one of the key battles that must be won is the CBA, which has legal force under the law. In the future, the CBA will be the main legal source for labour unions in fighting for their rights.

The change in the status of casual workers to permanent employees, accompanied by employment benefits and severance pay is certainly a positive, but the struggle is not yet over. Several issues remain, such as unjustified wage cuts, small premiums, hazardous work and the evaluation of work facilities.

The regional committee is supporting a solidarity network of fellow workers who can help the committee to discuss strategies. They are developing networks at the company, local and the federation levels, and building labour alliances and solidarity networks on sectoral issues to deepen the understanding of problems on the plantations.

Trade unions are encouraged to get to know the many actors in the palm oil business in order to build good networks. It is important for unions to have access to every Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) audit. In the future, unions should also have the right to be a party to membership complaints.


The “Invisible” Circle


Behind the pink-curtained windows, women peeked in on their husbands’ conversations. Some who wanted to join in felt that the atmosphere was too masculine and in the end, they declined to join in.

The absence of women is an obvious challenge for trade unions. The meetings featuring lengthy talk, thick with political chatter, might be attended by men. But women workers are reluctant to leave their homes, kitchens and children for such long discussions.

That night, the conversation about harsh working conditions briefly touched on the workload of sprayers, the majority of whom are women.  The men realised that their wives’ workload was too high, characterised by complaints of back pain, dizziness and leg pain that sprung up at night. Unfortunately, this discussion was not sustained to the end.

After the meeting, the SERBUK SBA chair realised that no women had come that night, which could be a problem in the future. He optimistically responded: “What can I say – there was a ladies’ recitation today. It’s okay. Let’s wait until Siti [a female worker who had previously participated in union trainings] wants to become the head of the women’s group.”

The meeting was closed with a group photo session. Meanwhile, the organisers reassembled. Indigenous leaders were also seen seriously responding to the late-night discussion.

I decided to go home just before daylight. When I entered the house, my landlady’s mother who had fallen asleep, woke up briefly to say hello, incredulous that the meeting had gone on for so long.

(Photo by the Author)

  1. Li, T. M., & Semedi, P. (2021). Plantation Life. Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone.
  2. Pye, O. (2017). “A plantation precariat: fragmentation and organizing potential in the palm oil global production network”. Development and Change, 48(5), 942–964.
  3. Pye, O. (2021). “Agrarian Marxism and the proletariat: a palm oil manifesto”. Journal of Peasant Studies, 48(4), 807–826

Salma Rizkya Kinasih is a Project Officer and Researcher at Transnational Palm Oil Labor Solidarity (TPOLS) in Indonesia. She is currently working on an action research project to uplift women workers affected by agrochemicals in palm oil plantations at West Kalimantan. She is interested in broader discussions about the political economy of oil palm plantations, occupational health and safety, women, labor, and the trade union movement.