The Indonesian trade union movement is in mourning. On 21 March Prof. DR. Muchtar Bebas Pakpahan, passed away as a result of cancer at the age of 67 in Siloam Hospital, Jakarta. Through his death Indonesia lost a very influential and charismatic trade unionists.
Born on 21 December 1953 in Bah Jambi village in North Sumatra, Muchtar Pakpahan, being the son of a farm labourer, did not have an easy childhood. And when at the age of 11 his father and thereafter at the age of 18 his mother died he was an orphan at a very young age. Through all kinds of menial jobs he was able to pay for his studies. And through hard work he eventually became a lawyer in 1978.
He founded a lawyer office in Medan where the majority of clients were poor people. This resulted in little wins. He was intimidated and accused of being a communist.
In 1992, after having been a lawyer for over two decades he founded the first independent Indonesia trade union called the Serikat Buruh Sejahtera Indonesia – SBSI (Indonesian Workers Welfare Union). During the founding of the union Muchtar Pakpahan was elected president. He was to remain president until 2003.
In those days there was only one legal trade union in Indonesia. This was the Serikat Pekerja Seluruh Indonesia – SPSI (All Indonesian Workers Union). This SPSI, backed by the government, was much criticized because of their lack of support for workers being persecuted. The trade union was led by the military and associated with the Suharto government.
The foundation of the SBSI and his critical stance against the SPSI, and thus the government, led to much intimidation. As a result of his work as trade union leader he was imprisoned various times.
Muchtar Pakpahan was not only active in the defence of workers’ rights in Indonesia. He was also active on international level. From 2001-2005 he was Vice President of World Confederation of Labour.
By the passing away of Muchtar Pakpahan the trade union movement lost a great and charismatic leader, best remembered by his achievement to establish the first independent trade union in Indonesia. And that in a time when independent trade unions were forbidden. Muchtar Bebas Pakpahan will be dearly missed by family, friends and colleagues.
May he rest in Peace.