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US Delays Decision To Lift Indonesia's Special Trade Deal

HUMAN rights and labor activists here sharply criticized the Clinton administration's decision last week not to impose trade sanctions against Indonesia for its alleged human rights violations.

Two United States groups had urged that the government cancel Indonesia's exemptions from custom duties under the General System of Preferences (GSP) because of political repression and consistent labor law violations.

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About $600 million in Indonesian exports to the US are affected by the administration's decision to postpone making any changes in Indonesia's trading status until Feb. 15, 1994. "This allows time for the government of Indonesia to change," says Greg Talcott, the US embassy official handling labor issues.

Mochtar Lubis, a novelist and human rights campaigner, says the decision is hypocritical. The Clinton administration proclaims its support for human rights in Somalia, he says, but refuses to take action in Indonesia against arbitrary arrests, press censorship, and suppression of independent trade unions.

The human rights group Asia Watch and the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund, both based in Washington, filed complaints with the US trade representative last year, charging that workers in Indonesia face harsh repression. US multinational firms are among the worst offenders, they said.

Many US textile, garment, and shoe companies have set up shop in Indonesia to take advantage of the country's low wages. Production workers at six companies producing Nike sports shoes, for example, earn about 20 to 25 cents an hour. Workers and labor organizers complain that these six companies pay low wages, offer few benefits, and require overtime work.

An Indonesian labor organizer says the salary for probationary workers at Nike manufacturer PT Hardaya Aneka Shoes Industry's (HASI) is below the government's minimum wage of 3,000 rupiah (US$1.40) per day. Even after passing probation, he says, wages are so low that workers cannot afford to buy food that meets the government's minimum daily calorie requirement.

Tony Nava, Nike's general manager in Jakarta, strongly denies that workers at Nike plants face poor or otherwise exploitative conditions. He says Nike manufacturers have state-of-the-art factories that provide excellent ventilation and lighting.

Many workers live eight to 12 people to a room in the squalid slum area of Tangerang just outside Jakarta, home to many US shoe manufacturers. "We hold Nike responsible for these conditions," the labor organizer says. "They are victimizing workers for their own profit."

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Workers at the PT Sung Hwa Dunia Nike plant struck late last year over wages and lack of union representation. Workers complained that a government-controlled union did not represent their interests, never held elections, and that they did not even know who its leaders were. The All Indonesian Workers Association, the only legal labor federation, is headed by a multi- milionaire businessman and frequently staffed by retired military officers. Military and police forces clashed violently with workers d uring the strike and detained key leaders who were later fired, the organizer says.

Mr. Nava says his company cannot be held responsible for Indonesian government actions.

"The factories that we deal with are probably the best you're going to find in this country," he says. All Nike contractors must follow Indonesian labor regulations or face termination of their contract, Nava says. Nikes imported to the US are not charged duties and a change in GSP rules would hurt company profits, he says. "Anything that can be done to support the industry here and support Indonesia's development is good," he adds.

US diplomat Mr. Talcott concedes that human and labor rights need to be improved in Indonesia. He says President Suharto's recent reshuffling of his Cabinet may improve labor regulations. That is why the US postponed any decision on lifting GSP privileges, he says.

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