The month of October 2020 saw a massive wave of protests and strikes in Indonesia against the newly introduced Omnibus law. The law is a series of amendments to dozens of existing legislation regarding labour, mining and environmental protection. The 900-page bill was passed as a law on October 5, 2020, without so much as a draft being released to the public. In April 2020, trade unions had forced the Parliament to suspend any debate on the bill, but it was passed regardless. Amnesty International, a non-governmental organisation focused on human rights, called the bill’s preparation process “opaque”.
Trade unions called for a nationwide strike in opposition to the bill, calling the workers to defend their rights. Paramita Supamijoto, a professor at Bina Nusantara University, said that the law effectively eliminated the power of labour unions. For workers, it meant that “whatever you do, your life will be determined by your employers.”
In many cities, protests led to clashes with the police as the government tried to ban gatherings on the grounds of health precautions. The dedication of the government towards curbing COVID-19 was seen in full swing when it came to these gatherings against the undemocratic passing of the bill. On other parameters, it has been unable to show much success. In fact, in mid-February, as cases of the virus were increasing, the Minister of Health had claimed that the country was completely free of the virus.
The Omnibus law was presented by the government as a drive to create jobs and develop the country in the wake of the unemployment caused by the pandemic. They highlighted the need for Foreign Direct Investment to boost the ailing economy. The Economist even praised the government for cutting back on the “lavish mandatory benefits” that Indonesian workers receive that deter companies from creating more jobs. Even the British Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia declared Indonesian labour as “too expensive” and that in order to be a realistic alternative to China, Indonesia would need to cut labour costs. It seems eerily dystopian that such organisations endorse and aspire to the labour conditions of a country known for its sweatshops, forced work, child labour and hazardous workplaces.
The law regresses the strides taken by Indonesia in terms of labour protection. The trailblazing menstrual leave has been abolished, along with paid maternity leave. Working hours have been increased, cost of living considerations and inflation correction have been done away with and the protections during employment termination have also been taken away.
The environmental aspect has also drawn harsh criticism. Similar to the Environmental Impact Assessment Amendment 2020 passed in India, the Omnibus law makes it easier for firms to avoid reporting their transgressions when it comes to the environmental impact. The agrarian clauses even allow the government to acquire individually owned land with close to no remuneration. Public participation has been restricted by reducing people’s ability to challenge projects that may cause environmental harm.
Even a consortium of 35 global investors, in a letter to the Indonesian government, expressed their concern regarding the law. They said that they recognised Indonesia’s progress in protecting tropical forests in recent years and that this law could hamper those efforts. In response to these concerns, the Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar said, “The concerns can be understood but [they’re] baseless.”
In fact, most of the government responses have been similarly vague and condescending. In relation to the massive rallies across the country, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto said that most protesters had not read the full legislation and were swayed by fake news. He seems to have forgotten that the draft was not made public before the law was passed, making it difficult for the public to read the bill.
Passing legislation like thieves in the night is a trend that all governments would do well to reconsider. There are surely more subtle ways to push an anti-people, anti-environment neo-liberal agenda. If the process of legislation does not even think about what the people want, it seems about time to question the institution of democracy itself. As one of the protesting student’s plaques declared, “Colonisation has ended but colonisation of workers begins.”
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