by Ralf Ruckus

Photo Credit: Southern Riot

This article follows an earlier one on the metal band Jubah Hitam, made up of Indonesian migrant workers, and on the migration regime in Taiwan that subjects Indonesian and other Southeast Asian workers to harsh labor exploitation and racist discrimination. In Indonesia, the metal, punk, and dangdut music scenes are huge and serve as expressions of proletarian creativity and desires. So, it is no wonder that Indonesian migrant workers in Taiwan refer to those music styles and form their own bands and support scenes on the island, too.

THE STORY OF SOUTHERN RIOT begins shortly before the migrant worker rally in front of the Taiwanese labor ministry in Taipei on January 16, 2022. Support groups helped to organize this rally for demands such as the right of Southeast Asian migrants in Taiwan to freely change their employer.

Abu (vocals, ukelele, harmonica), Bobo (percussion, later drums), and Danddy (guitar), three Indonesian migrant workers had recently recorded their first song, the acoustic “Lagu cinta dari BMI” (Love song from an Indonesian migrant worker), and it was then spread on social media to mobilize for the rally.

Photo courtesy of the author

They chose Southern Riot as their band name, referring to living and working in the south of the island and to the emotions triggered by problems they face in Taiwan. On January 16, on stage in front of 400 demonstrators, the three performed “Lagu cinta dari BMI” with its critique of the “system of slavery” (sistem perbudakan), the term they use in the song for the treatment of migrant workers by Taiwanese authorities and broker agencies.

The Band

SOON AFTER THE DEMONSTRATION, Vai (bass) joined Southern Riot, and the band went electric. The other band members knew each other from working in the same packaging factory in Pingtung and met to play music in a local park. Vai had come to Taiwan as a student and was asked to join through social media. He already knew Danddy from school and from being part of the Vespa-community back in Indonesia.

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The band has played a series of shows since January 2022 – including at the “Om2 Brisik” (noisy uncle) concert in Tainan in July 2022 organized by the cultural activist collective Trans/voices and the self-organized “Formosa Music Fest” in Kaohsiung in January 2023 – writing more songs on the way and developing their style of rhythmic punk music. In spring 2023, Abu went back to Indonesia, and Rudi, who works in an auto parts factory in Tainan, joined the band as the new singer. He is from the same area as Danddy in western Java and has already been part of the Indonesian underground music community in Taiwan for some time.

Migrant Work

WE MET SEVERAL times in the first half of 2023, and meet again in early July 2023, just before their monthly practice session in a music studio in downtown Kaohsiung to talk about their work in Taiwan, punk music, and their band. It’s obvious that the three issues are closely related.

All members of Southern Riot are in Taiwan to earn money, as the wage they would earn in Indonesia is only about one third of the wage they earn in Taiwan. They talk about their long work shifts, the pressure from the side of foremen, and their discrimination as migrants. As with their Vietnamese or Thai colleagues, Indonesian migrant workers have to work harder and stay longer than Taiwanese workers in the same department. If a work task is particularly difficult or demands a lot of energy, the migrants have to do it. “The Taiwanese workers work less or just walk around,” one of them points out.

While they as migrant workers get between 30.000 and 35.000 NTD, some of their Taiwanese coworkers get up to 50.000 NTD for the same working hours and less work. The migrant workers have to pay a part of their wage for their dormitory bed. In one case, three migrant workers live in one room, which, according to one band member, “is as big as the toilet in a five-star-hotel.” In another case, the migrants live in a dormitory room together with thirty others, while the Taiwanese workers live outside the factory in private homes.

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Like all migrant workers in Taiwan, the migrants also need to pay a share of their wage to their Taiwanese agencies. These agencies constitute one the biggest problems of migrant workers in Taiwan. Migrants already need to pay Indonesian agencies for getting to Taiwan. Then Taiwanese agencies hire them out to employers, control them, and take a part of their wage as a fee. If migrant workers want to change the employer, the agencies and the employers need to agree.

“We don’t need the agencies,” I learn from one of the Southern Riot members. And if they really need them, for instance, when they are ill, the agencies do not turn up or charge them money for everything. When workers report problems, the agencies just tell them to endure all hardships and keep working.

Punk Music

MOST OF SOUTHERN RIOT’S members have played in rock, metal, or reggae bands in Indonesia before, and reggae elements are now also part of their repertoire. The band members’ favorite bands include the punk veterans Superman is dead, Marjinal, and Bunga Hitam, the hard rock band Boomerang, and the grunge band Cupumanik, all from Indonesia, as well as the Ramones, NOFX, and Bob Marley.

All four members of Southern Riot talk about the importance of music and the band in their current lives. They emphasize that the band is like their second family or their home in Taiwan, and one of them states that the band and punk keep him afloat so he manages the stress at work.

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Another one agrees and says that the stress they feel due to the pressure from the boss, the foreman, and the agencies creates emotions that play an important role for their music. He thinks that punk music and lyrics fit these emotions. A while ago he wrote critical texts for reggae music, but they never became proper songs. Metal is also emotional, he adds, but it is not good for getting messages across because it is hard to understand the lyrics when they are screamed.

Social Critique

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that the band writes songs about their situation as workers and migrants in Taiwan, as some of the band members have had contacts to social movements in Indonesia before they migrated. Southern Riot’s songs are the result of the communication among themselves and with other migrants – factory workers, fishermen, and female domestic workers – on their problems during work, with employers and agencies. One of the band members emphasizes that for him punk means to talk about repression. If the lyrics do not touch that issue, they are just “nonsense” (omong kosong).

Another band member emphasizes that punk stands for resistance and social movement, not just for loud music and destruction. He says their music is meant to get across social critique and the complaints of migrant workers in Taiwan. His band colleague agrees and says that he hopes Southern Riot will not change in that aspect. For him, punk music is about making voices heard which are otherwise not heard, the voice of people who have problems at work or with their employer. As a band, they want to give those people a voice, and punk is good for bringing a message across.

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At the end of our conversation, one of the band members says they should use their time in Taiwan as much as they can to create their own art. Then they will have made a piece of history by the time they go back to Indonesia. One step on their way will be to publish an album with their own songs at some point.

Raise Your Voice

AS A MIGRANT worker punk band, Southern Riot takes up social issues and makes claims for improvements for migrant workers in Taiwan. The band does not just address their migrant coworkers but a Taiwanese society that is largely ignorant to the island’s racist migration regime or even supports it.

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One of the band members emphasizes: “Our music is not just for Indonesian people here, but also for Taiwanese. We sing about things Taiwanese people should not accept. We want to show that they can raise their voices.”

Translated Lyrics of Two Southern Riot Songs

From the People For the People (Dari rakyat untuk rakyat)

Common people suffer

Not knowing their future
They leave their homeland

Hanging up their dreams
They leave their families behind

Hoping their lives will change

And tirelessly keep moving

From the people for the people

Not from the people for the bootlickers

From the people for the people

Not from the people for the corrupted

Many leave this country

To become a migrant worker

All the sweat and insults bear witness

Some become mad, “frustrated”

Until they hang themselves

Love Song From an Indonesian Migrant Worker (Lagu cinta dari BMI)

Hey, do you realize

We feel neglected here
Isn’t it your job

To help and serve our rights

We were deprived of our rights

Silenced by intimidation

Here we stand against

This system of slavery

And it’s only natural

That we are angry

So, come on friends

Let’s shout out

MoL (Ministry of Labor)/Agencies An awful mess

MoL/Agencies There’s no use

MoL/Agencies Piss off

MoL/Agencies Fucking animal

MoL/Agencies An awful mess

MoL/Agencies There’s no use

MoL/Agencies Piss off

MoL/Agencies Fucking animal

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