Plantation Labour Union Organising: Collective Memory towards A Just Transition

Hariati Sinaga
14 min readOct 17, 2023


One evening on a large-scale plantation (heretofore called PT A) in Sambas, West Kalimantan, Indonesia, I arrived in the plantation’s guest housing. We’re supposed to stay in the guest housing first before moving to one of the worker’s housings in the next day. After the long trip to the plantations that involved motorcycle and boat ridings, I decided to take a shower. As I opened the bathroom door, the first thing I looked for is the water. For us interested in socioecological issues on plantations, this could be something that becomes a habit: observing the appearance of the water, either in the housings or in the river nearby plantations. Water issues have become one of the prominent ecological negative impacts of oil palm monoculture plantations. I examined the water in the guest house’s bathroom. The colour of the water was light brown with a few mosquito larvae on the surface. Just half an hour before, I had had a conversation with the guest house’s housekeeper. Bu Ani (pseudonym) stayed in one of the rooms in the guest house. She did the domestic works in the house and prepared meals for all guests who stay there. Bu Ani explained how she preferred to stay in the guest house to the plantation worker’s housing. Water was one of her reasons. The water in the guest house, as Bu Ani described, was better than that in the plantation worker’s housing, despite the improvement in the water quality in the latter. Bu Ani went on to explain that the improvement was illustrated by the absence of complaint by the plantation workers, unlike prior to that.

When we moved to the workers’ housing in the next day, I similarly examined the quality of the water in the bathroom. The water looked muddy and in dark brown colour. Speaking of the water, there are two types of water on the plantations: (1) water for washing and cleaning; and (2) water for drinking and cooking. The former was supplied from a pool built by the plantation company. Workers did not know from where the water was sourced. What was clear was that the water had to go through trenches next to plantation plots before it reached the pool. From the pool, the water was then distributed to all the houses on the plantations at certain time in the afternoon (usually between 1pm and 2 pm) every day. Water for drinking and cooking came from another source. Water for drinking and cooking was then distributed, in which every labour household gets one gallon for two days. This has been criticised by the plantation workers, as one gallon of water for drinking and cooking is not enough, especially for labour households that have kids. Meanwhile, the muddy and the dark-brownish water for washing and cleaning is perceived by the plantation workers as an improvement. One of the union officials I talked to testified what Bu Ani expressed, that the quality of the water was better than previously.

The story of the water quality in this large scale-plantation and the workers’ impressions about it sit for a while with me. I am sure that workers realise that the muddy and dark brown-ish water is not good for them. Yet, every time I asked the question to several plantation workers about what they think of the quality of the water on plantation, I got pretty much the same answer. This raises a few questions in my head: Why do the workers think that the obviously poor looking water is an improvement or as something better? I am aware that it shows that the water quality previously had been far worse. But it does not explain: Why don’t workers think that the water quality is not good enough despite the improvement? Why is there no worker who says that they deserve a much better or a good quality of water? And what do all these show about how workers relate themselves to the plantation’s ecology?

As workers compared to the past experiences every time I asked them the question about the water quality, I think that memory plays an important role in this. While labour and ecology has received increasing attention, memory is somehow less discussed in the literature. Memory becomes an essential issue in labour and ecology literature not only to tackle the very fundamental question on how workers relate to the plantation’s ecology as well as how to overcome this dualism, but also to understand how workers imagine the future.

Memory, Plantations and Labour

Talking about memory on plantation, one has to firstly starts with the colonial legacy of the oil palm plantations in Indonesia. The rise of the monoculture plantations was the outcome of the Dutch colonial authorities and European imperial companies. For plantation scholars, plantation serves as “theatres of memory”. Referring to the context of plantation as heritage site in the United States of America (USA), plantation as “theatres of memory” implies how memory becomes an instrument to counter the poor images of the southerners due to the legacy of the plantation slavery. In this process, the act of remembering is taken through the act of forgetting or the so-called remembering through forgetting. This shows a paradoxical act, in which remembering does not necessarily imply a progressive move. In fact, the act of remembering means maintaining the power relations. In the case of Indonesia, we do aware of the colonial legacy of plantation. The term “afdeling”, a Dutch term for division, for instance, is still used in many of the contemporary oil palm plantations in Indonesia. Nonetheless, we Indonesians at the same time feel detached to the colonial legacy.

Plantation landscape carries certain memory. In this regard, landscape becomes a “repository of the memory of past event”. When we understand landscape as something beyond biophysical terrain containing its own socioecological relation, then this memory concerns with the plantations’ labour relations. Introducing the concept of “social memory”, Aby Warburg and Maurice Halbwachs argue how memory is socially constructed. This shows how memory shapes and is shaped by plantation workers themselves and the labour process on plantations. At this point, it is noteworthy to mention the monoculture character of plantations, which shapes labour process on plantation. Monoculture certainly brings a memory of colonial plantation, as Walter Rodney argues that monoculture plantation is a colonial invention. The colonial logic behind monoculture plantations is how they benefit the colonial authorities and colonial metropoles at the expense of colonised societies. This logic is still maintained in the contemporary oil palm plantations when we remember how oil palm plantation workers face food crisis at the micro level even though the palm oil they produce is an important ingredient for food industry. On plantations, workers increasingly rely on food sold in small groceries stores. As the food must be transported from elsewhere to the often-remotely-located plantations, this causes higher food prices on plantations compared to in the non-plantation areas. Meanwhile, food prices in non-plantations areas become the basis for determining regional minimum wage. This exacerbates the situation for workers. As a result, plantation workers often consume unhealthy and processed foods, such as instant noodle. Not only instant noodle is not good for workers’ health, it also changes their taste. Undeniably, modern society tend to be addicted to processed foods as they become accustomed to the flavour of the processed foods. As taste changes, the taste of fresh and healthy foods become memory in the past for plantation workers.

Picture: Plantation Workers Buying from Mobile Fruit and Vegetable Hawkers. Picture taken by author

Monoculture oil palm plantations will eventually drive land expansion. This is evident if we see the oil palm plantation development in Indonesia over the years. Studies and reports show how such expansions have contributed to deforestation and land dispossession. This influences local food production. One of the local dishes in Sambas, West Kalimantan is Bubbor Paddas, introduced by Sambas Malay in the region. It is made of pounded rice and cooked with a great number of herbs involved. The word “paddas” or “pedas” is referred to this great variety of herbs involved and they are all vegetables and plants that only grow in Kalimantan. For the local Sambas Malays, it becomes increasingly difficult to find all herbs needed for preparing Bubbor Paddas as oil palm expansions not only cause deforestation but also change food cultivation. Noting the link between taste bud and memory, this increasingly rarity of local herbs and vegetable shapes the memory of the local Sambas Malay about their local dish.

Picture: Bubbor Paddas Served During Dinner together with Plantation Workers. Picture taken by author

Plantation Memories and Embodied Labour

As how human relates nature is mediated through work, the monoculture plantation definitely changes such relation. As discussed in the above paragraph, colonised societies were separated from their means of productions, including how they traditionally work on land and for the food production. Cultivating and maintaining monoculture plantation involves the use of fertilisers and pesticides. Both of them contain chemicals, something that are foreign to human’s bodies. The use of these chemicals can be traced back to the development of “industrial hazard regimes”, coming out of post-war development of petrochemicals. Women plantation workers, often exposed to these chemical due to the sexual division of labour on plantations that oblige them to work in maintaining activities, experience the side effects of the heavy and repetitive use of these chemicals. They report how they suffer from itchy and burnt skins, respiratory problems as well as issues around sexual reproductive health. As oil palm plantation expand over the time and across broader areas, these issues around occupational safety and health become embodied experiences. Prompting women workers about what they think about working on plantations partly raises health issues they suffer from. The idea about working on plantations brings up memories on the women’s bodily experiences. This way, the body becomes the site of collective memory, a means of remembrance (Adams 2007).

Of course, the chemicals contained in the fertiliser and pesticide also pollute the rivers on the plantations. One of the Sambas regional union officials had been a palm oil mill worker before he got laid off by the plantation company after speaking up about the negative impact of the palm oil mill on fish in the local river. According to Stefania Barca, this use of pollutants serves as environmental violence that reproduces oppressive social relations and political control. In Indonesia, this reliance on the use of chemical fertiliser and pesticide is started with the Green Revolution policy, adopted during the authoritarian Suharto regime. Agriculture modernisation — referring to mechanisation, the use of agrochemicals and high-yield seeds — became a national development agenda at the time. One of the important events that provide further impetus for this is the dismantling of peasant movements associated to the 1965–1966 mass murders of communist members in Indonesia. As such, the use of foreign pollutants in the form of agrochemicals shapes not only one’s individual memory in relation to nature, but also political memory about peasants movement and the alternative politics in Indonesia.

Memory and Plantation’s Totality

I recently talked with one of plantation union organisers about the still lacking mobilisation of plantation workers. Certainly, the labour relations on plantations serve one of the key explaining factors. During the conversation, I was asked, “Have you tried to carry the oil palm fresh fruit bunch before?” Indeed, oil palm fresh fruit bunch normally weighs between 10 kilograms to 25 kilograms and carrying it involves a huge amount of energy. “Now, imagine carrying it in a great number repetitively every day and what it does to your body! Plantation workers are treated like animal” Said the organiser whom I talked with. Such strenuous plantation works drain the energy of plantation workers that they are not left with much with to think about mobilising. The demise of Indonesian’ radical plantation labour union (SARBUPRI/ Sarekat Buruh Kebun Perkebunan Republik Indonesia) along with the 1965–66 mass murders of communist members becomes a haunted memory that suppresses a radical mobilisation of plantation workers.

Meanwhile, the secluded character of many oil palm plantations makes it easier for the company to control workers. Drawing on the experiences of the slaves on plantations, Grada Kilomba uses “mask” as a metaphor in plantation memories, in which the mask functions as an instrument to impose a sense of speechlessness and fear. Kilomba also uses “mouth” as a metaphor of possession and control. The mechanism of control can also be extended as far as denial by slaves in order to maintain and legitimate the violent system. On many Indonesia’s oil palm plantations, there is no fixed boundary between working and living spaces. If there are villages surrounding the plantations, whose people are also working on plantations, this boundary may still exist. Nonetheless, in many, including the one we visited in Sambas, West Kalimantan, the plantations are remotely located and workers’ daily lives mainly take place on plantations. Indonesia’s oil palm plantations have been dubbed “state within state”, a phrase that historically originates to the totality of Deli plantations under Dutch colonialism. This corresponds to an argument in the literature on plantation economies, which describes plantations as “total economic institutions”.

Plantation workers’ housings are the consequential logic of colonial plantations, which involve both converting indigenous lands for plantations and bringing labour force from elsewhere. The latter shows racial underpinning of colonial plantation. In the contemporary oil palm plantation, plantation workers’ housing may be weaponised as a product of modern development. In this case, modern subjectivity is invoked, such as the compulsion to have a modern house, access to electricity, electronic equipment, and modern mode of transportation. This is connected to the narrative of oil palm development an important driver for rural development and employment creation. This modern subjectivity, in turn, shapes plantation workers’ social memory and desirable futures.

Plantation Futures and Radical Imagination

It is commonly accepted view that the labour relations on plantation serve as proto-industrialised labour relations. However, when we examine closely, the opposite is actually true. Katherine McKittrick argues how labour relations in many sectors in the modern economy resemble or become resembling those on plantations. Indonesia, despite being an independent nation-state for 78 years, still relies on agriculture sector, including the oil palm plantations. Labour relations once commonly found on plantations, such as piece rate and putting-out system, become increasingly adopted in other sectors. Meanwhile, on oil palm plantations, workers face a rather bleak future. The impact of the climate crisis will obviously be passed on to workers through their work targets. And without secured employment and with increasingly difficult working situation due to climate breakdown, it is even more difficult for workers to achieve the target. Achieving the work target will be the number one purpose for workers in order to earn income for labour household reproduction. This does not only imply providing for daily subsistence, but also ensuring the future for the children of the labour household. The narrative of oil palm plantation as an important driver for rural development becomes a tempting persuasion since health and school facilities become one of the selling points. For the government, this narrative becomes handy as the limited fiscal capacity hampers government’s efforts to provide equal access to school to everyone, including in rural areas. While many oil palm plantations do provide schools for the children of the plantation workers, many also do not. In PT A, for instance, there are only a daycare and a kindergarten. For elementary school and upwards, children have to go to the next plantation or even to the boarding school further away. These children’s futures are technically at the hand of the company. In most cases, children of plantation workers either follow the path of their parents, namely, work as plantation workers, or leave the plantation to become blue collar workers. Social upward mobility is an exception rather than the norm.

Facing plantations’ totality and alienation as well as the haunted memory of suppressed radical organisation, what is it left for workers to have radical imagination? I would argue that mobilising and organising plantation labour is necessary to shape workers’ memory and radical imagination. It is worth noting that imagination is always shaped by one’s socialisation and this manifests through plantation workers’ everyday lives. As I will explain below, plantation labour organising is not only important to mobilise workers’ collective power, but also helps workers collectively (re-)articulating their everyday lives on plantations. As imagination comes into being through interactive social experiences, plantation labour organising helps shape a radical imagination.

Plantation Labour Organising: Reclaiming Collective Memory

During our stay on PT A oil palm plantation, we had an opportunity to talk to the women workers to follow up a labour diary. Distributed few months earlier to the workers, the purpose of the diary is to facilitate workers in documenting health issues in their day-to-day plantation activities. The women workers explained that one of the challenges in documenting their health issues through the labour diary exercise is that it involves writing. Apparently, women plantation workers are not used to write something down regularly. And I think it is even more than that. When we had a focused group discussion about environmental issues, we also used a module that involved an active participation of women workers in identifying changing landscape of plantations. Such active participation required women thinking, sharing and writing down what landscape changes they could identify. This process was relatively slow and required further guidance and probing questions. The seemingly mundane living on plantations internalised by plantation workers makes a time for them sitting together, talking and sharing with each other becomes ever more urgent. Through such opportunity, plantation workers may share their experiences on daily working lives with each other as well as shape each other’s meanings over how these issues are related to the plantation’s ecology. Regular union meeting could have provided a space for workers’ reflections. From the global perspective, workers’ meeting and sharing together seem a rather small and less-affecting, but they are actually important instrument to shape memory and social imagination. Engaging with workers’ imagination is the first step and failing to do so will imply that, “people will simply adhere to the way things are”. This brings us back to the responses of plantation workers in PT A about the water told in the beginning of the article. Their articulation about the improvement of the water quality is shaped by political, historical, and environmental conditions, in which social memory is involved.

One of the main reasons for worker to come together and organise themselves as labour union is the working conditions, the so-called “normative issues” in Indonesia. Organised workers employ their collective power to fight for their labour rights. And this, in the case of plantation workers, most often concerns with secured employment status and wages. When I asked plantation labour union what they thought about environmental issues in relations to union activities, they answered how they were mainly concerned with “normative issues”. Indeed, the political space provided for labour union is often considered limited to legalistic framework, that is, labour union only talks about labour rights. And yet, when I asked labour unions about occupational safety and health on plantations, they were able to navigate the parallel between health issues experienced by workers and the negative environmental impacts of plantations. Whereas the legalistic framework shapes the social memory of plantation labour unions that limit their activities in “normative issues”, the embodied experiences of workers in relations to plantations ecology stimulate imagination beyond “normative issues”. This demonstrates how imagination is embodied and that it is not located in the mind, but involves sense and feeling. Worked and exploited bodies will imagine the world differently.

The history of social movement is intertwined with the production of social memory. This can be understood as how social movement is remembered. Alternatively, it can also refer to how practicing memories help forge collective identities. Through plantation labour organising, in which workers may have opportunities to sit together and share their reflections on how their articulate plantation’s ecology in their daily lives, workers may shape their social memory, not only in terms how workers relate themselves with plantation’s ecology, but also in terms of how they relate to each other both as exploited workers and as a collective group of people who have agency. The transformation from exctractive and exploitative monoculture oil palm plantation to a socioecologically just palm oil production can only happen when there is strong social movement, including labour movement, and, this also means re-claiming collective memory.