In January, Indonesia was shocked by the gruesome discovery of a makeshift prison in the home of the suspended head of Langkat district, North Sumatra, Terbit Rencana Perangin Angin. An iron cage had been used to detain more than 40 people who were allegedly forced to work on an oil palm plantation owned by Terbit.
The discovery was made after the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) arrested Terbit for allegedly demanding kickbacks from private contractors for infrastructure projects in the district, which led to his suspension from duty. In addition to the illegal prison, investigators also found several protected animals being kept as pets, including a Sumatran orangutan.
Migrant CARE’s investigations revealed that the detained people were compelled to work for more than 10 hours on the district head’s plantation, without pay. They were then confined in the iron cage, where they were offered a poor diet, had no access to communications, and were often subject to physical abuse. Migrant CARE delivered these findings to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), which immediately launched its own investigation.
When the case was exposed, the North Sumatra Police said that the cell was a “rehabilitation centre” for narcotics addicts. The North Sumatra division of the National Narcotics Agency (BNN) initially confirmed the police statement, but later acknowledged that the iron cage was not a formal rehabilitation centre. In any case, it was clear that even if authorities did not formally endorse the detention and forced labour, they certainly seemed willing to turn a blind eye to the practice.
Komnas HAM’s investigation has already revealed indications of human rights violations, including the finding that three people are suspected to have died after being tortured at the district head’s property.
The case underlines the many connections between modern slavery and corruption. Perpetrators of modern slavery and human trafficking are often able to get away with their crimes by bribing or influencing government officials, practices often referred to in Indonesia by the broad term “judicial mafia”. This has long been the case in East Nusa Tenggara, where human trafficking remains rampant.
At the international level, the links between human trafficking, forced labour and corruption are long established. Indeed, the OECD states simply, “organised trafficking cannot take place without corruption”. Corruption can allow the trafficking crime to appear “invisible”, and then guarantee impunity for perpetrators when they are caught.
Since 2014, the global anti-modern slavery organisation Walk Free has published a Global Slavery Index. It has found that modern slavery in Indonesia is most prevalent in the plantation sector, the fishing industry and in domestic work. The palm oil sector is a major contributor to modern slavery of Indonesians, both in Indonesia and in neighbouring Malaysia. In 2016, Migrant CARE even received a report of modern slavery practices involving Indonesian workers on a palm oil plantation in Gabon, Central Africa.
In its 2014 report, Walk Free noted that Indonesian palm oil workers are often “trapped on plantations, and forced to live in squalor, work excessive hours, are subject to physical abuse, work for little or no pay, and have restricted movement”, much as occurred in the Langkat case.
Sadly, these abuses have a long history. In fact, the plantation industry in Indonesia has been linked to the exploitation of workers and modern slavery practices since the colonial period. The history of the Dutch East Indies throughout the 19th century is a story of the exploitation of the human and natural resources for the benefit of the colonising country, which had come close to bankruptcy following the Java War of 1825-1830.
Historian Alec Gordon has calculated that the income transferred from Indonesia (the so-called colonial surplus) from 1878 to 1941 was equivalent to about US$400 billion or more (in 2012 dollar terms). The plantation industry was a major contributor to this surplus.
The Langkat district head’s exploitation of planation workers, his construction of a makeshift prison, and implementation of extra-judicial punishment is similar to the pattern observed in the colonial plantations of Sumatra by Van der Brand (1902), Lulofs (1932) and historian Jan Breman (1987).
The exposure of the abuse of workers by Van der Brand prompted protests among some members of the Netherlands elite, forcing the colonial government to act, and it formed a commission to investigate, led by prosecutor JLT Rhemrev. The commission examined the impact of the colonial Koeli Ordonantie (Coolie Ordinance) and related Poenale Sanctie (Penal Sanction) on plantation workers, concluding that workers suffered immensely at the hands of planation owners.
The commission found that plantations in East Sumatra were operating like mini kingdoms. Many plantations were found to be implementing their own systems of justice. Deprivation of freedoms and physical abuse were widespread. Workers were treated differently according to their race, creating divisions and resentment. Women suffered from discrimination – they received less pay and were often denied access to reproductive rights. Some plantations reportedly even applied the death penalty (via hanging) to plantation workers considered “dangerous”.
The Rhemrev report was an important factor in the establishment of the Arbeid Inspectie, an institution charged with monitoring of labour conditions in plantations, in 1908.
But many of the conditions established by colonial plantation operators remain in place today. Looking at the history of exploitation and slavery on colonial plantations, and comparing it to the horrific case in Langkat, it is clear that modern slavery is deeply connected to the process of decolonisation, which remains a work in progress. The modern plantation industry continues to perpetuate many of the worst abuses of colonial rule.
As the Langkat case underscored so emphatically, modern slavery is also deeply intertwined with corruption. Unless labour exploitation, human trafficking and corruption are tackled together, the Langkat case will not be the last.