Thousands take to Indonesia’s streets in angry protests against pro-business law

By James Balowski

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Indonesia last week in a series of angry and sometimes violence protests against the passage of the government’s widely unpopular Omnibus Law on Job Creation, which will further deepen attacks on working conditions and the environment.

On October 5, the House of Representatives (DPR) overwhelmingly voted to pass the 905-page bill that includes around 1,200 sweeping revisions to 79 laws in key sectors including labour, taxation and the environment, which the government touts as a silver bullet to attract investment and create jobs. Indonesian markets cheered the passage with the main stock index up by 1.31% and the rupiah rising 1.28%.

Under the cover of Covid-19 health restrictions on public gatherings, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the House have pushed through several controversial laws recently with little public consolation. Revisions to the Coal and Mineral Mining Law were passed in May despite widespread criticism over threats to the environment and local communities.

The final vote on the law was originally slated for Thursday October 8 but brought forward to preempt trade union plans for three days of strikes and rallies. When news of the bill’s passage circulated Monday thousands of workers tried to rally at the DPR but were blocked by police who earlier banned rallies on the pretext of health concerns. Police and military blocked roads to stop workers from industrial areas entering Jakarta and restricted access to the city through the next day.

Strikes and protests went ahead however in the satellite cities of Tangerang and Bekasi, and in Serang and Bandung in West Java. Workers in industrial complexes in East Jakarta and West Java rallied at factories on Tuesday morning. In Bandung and Serang police used water cannons and teargas to disperse protesters resulting in clashes and scores of arrests.

Mass Protests

Jogjakarta

By Tuesday evening the protests began to spread. Authorities in Bandung blocked streets leading to the local parliament where clashes between rock-throwing students and riot police broke out after police tried to disperse the crowd. Protests in Serang went on late into the evening.

The next day more than 3,000 workers, high-school and university students attempted to reach the heavily guarded parliament in Jakarta setting fire to tyres near blocked streets. Police responded with teargas and water cannon.

Rioting broke out in West Jakarta with an angry mob trashing a police vehicle after running street battles with police who fired teargas while the crowd showered them with rocks. Students in East Jakarta burnt tires and waved banners opposing the law.

Jakarta

Dozens of students were arrested in Semarang, Central Java, after they tore down the gates of the governor’s office and damaged the building. Protesters in Samarinda and Kutai Kertanegara in East Kalimantan blockaded the city’s main roads.

Thursday saw the largest and most angry rallies with thousands gathering near the Presidential Palace shouting and throwing stones. Protesters burnt traffic police posts and set fire to tires and fiberglass road barriers. As night fell, bus stops were torched, turning the area into an eerie orange colour.

Large clashes took place in the Harmoni area near the Palace with huge crowds of mostly university students chanting and hurling stones at police. Police fired rubber bullets, teargas and water cannons in a vain attempt to disperse them.

Yogyakarta

Hundreds of protesters in Malang, East Java, pelted the regional parliament with firecrackers and flares, setting fire to the front gate. Similar scenes occurred in Medan, North Sumatra and Jambi, where protesters threw stones at local parliament buildings.

CNN Indonesia reported that between October 6-8 protests and clashes occurred in Ambon (Maluku), Bandung, Lampung and Palembang (North Sumatra), Kendari (South-East Sulawesi), Makassar (South Sulawesi), Malang and Surabaya (East Java), Manado, Medan, Pontianak (West Kalimantan), Semarang and Yogyakarta (Central Java).

Police said there were protests in every single province. “October 8 was the climax, there were 95 actions throughout Indonesia, in all 34 provinces”, a police spokesperson told CNN Indonesia. A Media Online satellite map posted on Twitter shows just how widespread the demonstrations were – extending from the western tip of Aceh to its easternmost point in West Papua. By Friday police said that 5,918 people had been arrested and hundreds charged.

Map of protest actions against Omnibus Law – October 8, 2020 (Media Online)

Excessive Force

Rights activists slammed police for using excessive force against protesters and journalists. The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence said it received some 1,500 complaints over the three days while the Jakarta Legal Aid Foundation received 288 complaints mostly related to the arrest of protestors.

The Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) said that 28 journalists were assaulted in Jakarta, Bandung, Semarang, Samarinda, Surabaya, Tanjung Pinang and Palu. “The police commit violence against journalists when they are recording police committing violence against protesters. Meaning, police don’t want their crimes to be seen by the public”, AJI Chairperson Abdul Manan told CNN Indonesia.

The International Federation of Journalists said it was “… perturbed by the latest attacks on journalists in Indonesia. The perpetrators must be charged and we urge the authorities to do more to control police violence”.

Gift To Business

With the exception of business and employers, almost every quarter of Indonesian society came out against the law. The most immediate winners are business tycoons close to the government in the mining and palm oil sectors – Indonesia’s two largest exports. The Post reported independent researcher Marepus Corner as finding six out of 10 lawmakers have direct or indirect interests in private enterprises. According to Cleaning Indonesia, around half have connections to the coal mining industry.

According to a draft of the bill, paid leave for childbirth, weddings, baptism, bereavement and menstrual leave will be scrapped. Overtime increased to four hours a day and mandatory severance benefits reduced from the equivalent of 32 months to 19.

Environmental protection will be relaxed with only “high-risk” investments required to obtain a permit or carry out an environmental impact assessment. In some cases local government authority over permits will be taken over by central government.

Restrictions on foreign investment will be eased and the government will set up a land bank and manage land for “the public interest”. Corporate tax will be cut from 22% to 20% by 2022.

Social and Environmental Crisis

Indonesian Trade Union Congress Alliance Confederation chairman Nining Elitos said slashing severance pay will make “hiring and firing” easy, remove a two-year cap on contract labour allowing firms to employ contract workers indefinitely, extend outsourcing and calculate wages based on hours worked instead of the minimum wage. Elitos noted that a 2015 regulation which forced wages down by tying them to inflation and productivity had no impact on investment.

International labour groups also urged the government to drop the bill. The Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) wrote to Widodo on October 6 saying the law appears to “put the interests and demands of foreign investors ahead of workers, communities and the environment”.

The International Trade Union Confederation echoed BWI’s sentiments. “It is staggering that while Indonesia is, like other countries, facing the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government would seek to further destabilise people’s lives and ruin their livelihoods so that foreign companies can extract wealth from the country”, the ITUC wrote in a statement.

Environmentalists warned the law will worsen deforestation, undermine land rights and trigger more agrarian conflicts. “The Indonesian parliament made a ruinous false choice between environmental sustainability and economic growth by effectively legitimising uncontrolled deforestation as an engine for a so-called pro-investment job creation policy”, Mighty Earth’s Phelim Kine said in a statement.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment said, “The enactment of the Omnibus Law represents the climax of the state’s betrayal of the rights of workers, farmers, traditional communities, women and the environment as well as future generations”.

Amnesty International Indonesia called it a threat to human rights which may well violate international conventions on wages and working hours. “This is a catastrophic law. It will harm workers’ wallets, job security and their human rights as a whole”, AI director Usman Hamid told the Post.

The Forum of Concerned Citizens for Indonesia’s Parliament (Formappi) said using Covid-19 as a pretext to rush the law through was a fabrication. “It looks as if they took advantage of corona as a shield to deceive the public”, Formappi researcher Lucius Karus told CNN Indonesia.

Indonesia’s two largest Islamic mass organisations – Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah – which claim a membership of 60 and 30 million respectively – also come out against the law. NU Chairperson Said Aqil Siradj called it “oppressive” and only benefiting the rich. “[The law] only benefits tycoons, capitalists and investors but tramples on the interests of laborers, farmers and the lower classes”, Said told the Post.

An interfaith network of religious figures also joined the chorus of dissent calling it a threat to social and economic justice and environmental sustainability. An online petition against the law by Christian pastor Penrad Sagian gained over 1.3 million signatures by Tuesday.

Even Indonesia’s peek Islamic body the Indonesian Ulema Council – who’s inactive chairperson is Vice President Ma’ruf Amin – criticised the bill. In a letter on October 8 the council asserted it would only benefit “employers and investors” and trample on workers’ interests.

Civil society organisations grouped under the Indonesian People’s Faction said the state turned a blind eye to popular opposition. In a statement the group argued the government had betrayed the people and the 1945 Constitution.

Social media users meanwhile expressed their frustrations by writing posts with the hashtags #DPRRIKhianatiRakyat (House [of parliament] betrays the people), #BatalkanOmnibusLaw (cancel the omnibus law) and #MosiTidakPercaya (vote of no confidence).

On October 8 the Parliament’s website was hacked and the home page header changed to “House of Traitors”. Netizens put up mock product pages on e-commerce platforms to “sell” the House complex. A page on Tokopedia – an e-commerce website – offers the House complex and its occupants for Rp 1,000 (US$0.068).

Rattled by the protests, but no doubt with an eye on December’s regional elections, six provincial governors officially asked Widodo to revoke or reconsider the law.

The Usual Suspects

The government was quick to place blame on the usual suspects: “anarchists” and unspecified “third parties” using the rallies for some dark and insidious purpose. Social media was abuzz with reports of paid protesters being shipped in to cause trouble – reports many attributed to the government’s army of trolls and bots.

President Widodo meanwhile skipped town on Thursday for a working visit. Despite denials he was avoiding the protests, the Twitter hashtag #JokowiKabur (Jokowi Runs Away) trended on the platform. It wasn’t until October 9 that Widodo made his first public comment claiming the protests were because of “misinformation” and “fake news”. “I think that the protests against the Jobs Law were caused by misinformation about substantive issues and social media hoaxes”, Widodo told Kompas.com.

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto – a Suharto era general with stakes in pulp and paper, palm oil and coal mining – accused foreign parties of being behind the protests. Security Chief Mahfud MD said the riots were created to sow chaos and instead of protesting people should challenge it in the Constitutional Court. Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan – another Suharto regime general with extensive coal mining interests – also advised opponents to seek a judicial review.

While trade unions and other groups have already announced their intent to challenge the law, given the court’s track record it is unlikely to succeed. Revisions to the Constitutional Court law rushed through in August extending judges’ terms and age limits and were widely seen as a bribe to ensure rulings favourable to the government. There were also futile calls for Widodo to annul the law by issuing a regulation in lieu of law given he was the driving force behind the law.

Legally Defective

Quite aside from numerous procedural violations, it is unclear if the bill passed Monday is even final. Golkar Party lawmaker Firman Soebagyo admitted to the Post that. “We’re still revising the draft so that there aren’t any typos”.

Democratic Party lawmaker Didi Irawadi Syamsuddin told Tribune News the draft was not even distributed during the October 5 plenary session raising concern it is “legally defective” since it was ratified without being read or even finished.

According to Kompas.com there are now four versions of the law: A 905 page, a 1,028 page, a 1,035 page and a 812 page version. House Deputy Speaker Azis Syamsuddin claimed nothing substantial had been altered and the differences were due to font and page sizes. The Post however said it found discrepancies between the versions.

No Silver Bullet

Amid the public outcry, employer groups have defended the law claiming it will uphold labor rights and address high labor costs and productivity. Indonesian Employer Association chair Hariyadi Sukamdani told the Post the law address the issues preventing business from employing more people and will redress a long-term decline in employment.

Global investors have been more guarded. In a letter sent hours before the passage of the bill, 35 leading investment firms managing some $4.1 trillion in assets warned the government the bill could pose new risks to the country’s tropical forests. The new law risks “contravening international best practice standards intended to prevent unintended harmful consequences from business activities that could deter investors from Indonesian markets”, the letter said.

Economist Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara expressed doubt the new law would even boost investment. “Indonesia is a big market and raw materials are readily available here. But many companies are not relocating to Indonesia”, he told Channel News Asia.

“The government makes the assumption that Indonesia’s biggest hurdle in terms of our competitiveness is labour costs. But there are issues like rampant corruption, complicated bureaucracy and high logistics costs which the government needs to address”, he said. Adhinegara added the law does not address this and it will pave the way for discontent, strikes, lower productivity and unrest.

Hendri Saparini of the Centre for Reforms on Economics Indonesia said the law would be ineffective without reforms to government ministries and agencies. “I don’t see any attempts at fixing the bureaucratic structure, addressing overlapping authorities and improving coordination between the central and regional governments. Without this bureaucratic reform, the law only works on paper”, she said.

[For the latest news and information on Indonesia visit the Indoleft and Asia Pacific Solidarity Net websites.]

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