Divine Word Brother Yulianus Sudir (center with green shirt) accompanies workers who were dismissed by their company in 2019 to meet local legislators in East Kalimantan. (Photo supplied)
Soon after professing his perpetual vows in 2017, Divine Word Brother Yulianus Sudir went to work among migrant workers in Samarinda Archdiocese in East Kalimantan.
It did not take him long to discover the problems faced by workers where many palm oil companies operate.
He said they came from different islands in Indonesia — Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Flores — to try their luck working for palm oil companies as manual laborers on a casual basis.
“They are poor, uneducated and easily exploited,” says Brother Sudir, who comes from Manggarai district on Catholic-majority Flores island.
Many are underpaid. Some receive a salary of less than US$142 a month, some do not even receive salaries for months despite the long hours and hard work working on palm oil plantations involves.
“I see it as my job to defend them,” Brother Sudir says.
He says he has met plantation owners, local legislators and government officials to try and ensure workers and their families are treated fairly.
“We have to support them because many are stressed, afraid of losing their jobs and are far from their homes,” he says.
Brother Sudir, who joined the Divine Word congregation in 2009, says the fate of thousands of workers hangs in the balance because “they can be dismissed very easily if they have a problem with the company.“
Every year about 1,000 workers are dismissed from around 360 palm oil companies in the province.
He says they are fired because they are vocal in demanding that companies respect their rights and provide health insurance, and pay a minimum monthly wage of more than $215.
When firing them, companies sometimes get nasty by using security guards or thugs to beat them and kick them off plantations by force.
He says the last mass dismissal occurred in 2019 when two firms, Wahana Tritunggal Cemerlang and Anugerah Energitama, dismissed nearly 1,000 protesting workers. But after he and his team negotiated with both companies, about 800 workers were taken back and were even made permanent employees.
“More have since been made permanent and receive a minimum wage of $215,” he says.
Brother Sudir says companies are not the workers’ only problem and that the laborers can be their own worst enemies.
Many are school dropouts and so are poorly educated and unable to help themselves in certain matters such as managing their income.
They spend their salaries on trivial matters or just to pay off debts, the Divine Word brother says.
“Every time I meet them, I always remind them to save their money either in a bank or credit union,” he says.
Many have responded well and are able to pay for the education of their children and build homes.
He says his efforts have not been easy as they have required a lot of traveling to remote areas to meet workers and company officials. He also often finds himself stonewalled by companies he goes to visit.
“When companies learn I want to see them, they often find any excuse to avoid meeting me because they know I want something on behalf of the workers,” he says.
But he said his previous experience working with a group combating violence against women and children as well as human trafficking on Flores in East Nusa Tenggara province had provided him with the steely resolve to carry out tough work.
Despite the many challenges posed by companies and the migrants, Brother Sudir says he will remain committed to promoting workers’ rights.
Such commitment saw him appointed head of Samarinda Archdiocese’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission and a member of Vivat International, a human rights group run by the Divine Word congregation.
“I will not give up defending these people because they are humans created in God’s image,” he says.
One 42-year-old worker, who only wished to be identified as Andreas, says he and many other workers owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Sudir.
“My salary has increased because of him. Previously, I was only getting $122, but now it’s $215,” he says.
The father of three says he has been working for his company for seven years and can now save money and send some to his family on Flores.
He hopes Brother Sudir remains committed to his mission “because many of my friends still face injustice and are afraid to speak.”