Indonesia: a wave of protests against a pro-boss law
Indonesia: a wave of protests against a pro-boss law

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

On 5 October, Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed the 905-page bill. The bill includes around 1,200 sweeping revisions to 79 laws that cover labour, taxation and the environment. The government is touting the bill as a silver bullet to attract investment and create jobs. Indonesian markets cheered the bill’s passage: the main stock index rose by 1.31% and the rupiah by 1.28%.

While COVID-19 health restrictions restrict public gatherings, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the House have pushed through several controversial laws. When revisions to the Coal and Mineral Mining Law were passed in May, there was widespread public criticism over the threat it posed to the environment and to local communities.

According to a draft of the Omnibus bill, paid leave for childbirth, weddings, baptism, bereavement and menstrual leave will be scrapped. Mandatory severance benefits are to be 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 governments will lose their capacity to deny permits for projects, with the central government left in charge.

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.

The final vote on the Omnibus Law was originally slated for Thursday 8 October. But it was brought forward to preempt trade union plans for three days of strikes and rallies. When news of the bill’s passage circulated on Monday, thousands of workers tried to rally at the House of Representatives, but they were blocked by police: rallies had been banned on the pretext of health concerns. Police and the military blocked roads, aiming to stop workers from industrial areas entering the city of Jakarta. Access to the city was restricted through the next day.

Strikes and protests went ahead in the satellite cities of Tangerang and Bekasi, and in Serang and Bandung in the province of West Java. Workers in industrial complexes in East Jakarta and West Java rallied at factories on Tuesday morning. Police used water cannons and tear gas against protesters in in Bandung and Serang. There was fighting in the streets and scores of arrests.

By Tuesday evening, the protests began to spread. Authorities in Bandung blocked the streets that led to the local parliament building, where clashes between riot police and rock-throwing students 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 tried to reach the heavily guarded parliament in Jakarta, setting fire to tyres near blocked streets. Police responded with tear gas 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 showering them with rocks. Students in East Jakarta burnt tyres and waved banners against the law.

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. Thousands gathered near the presidential palace, shouting and throwing stones. Protesters burnt traffic police posts and set fire to tyres and fiberglass road barriers. As night fell, the area was illuminated with the eerie orange glow of bus stops that had been torched.

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.

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.

Police said there were protests in every single province over three days. “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, 8 October 8, 2020 (Media Online).

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”.

With the exception of bosses, almost every section 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. According to the Jakarta Post, independent researcher Marepus Corner found that 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.

Indonesian Trade Union Congress Alliance Confederation chairperson Nining Elitos said that slashing severance pay will make it easier to fire workers. The removal of a two year cap on contract labour will allow firms to employ contract workers indefinitely, extending outsourcing. Bosses will be able to pay wages on scales that do not adhere to the minimum wage.

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 called the law “the climax of the state’s betrayal of the rights of workers, farmers, traditional communities, women and the environment as well as future generations”, while Amnesty International called it “catastrophic”: “It will harm workers’ wallets, job security and their human rights as a whole”, AI director Usman Hamid told the Jakarta Post.

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”, telling the Jakarta Post that it “only benefits tycoons, capitalists and investors but tramples on the interests of laborers, farmers and the lower classes”.

An interfaith network of religious figures also joined the chorus of dissent, calling the law  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 peak Islamic body, the Indonesian Ulema Council 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, saying in a statement that 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 Representatives betrays the people”), #BatalkanOmnibusLaw (“Cancel the Omnibus Law”) and #MosiTidakPercaya (“Vote of No Confidence”).

On October 8 the DPR’s website was hacked: its header was changed to read “House of Traitors”. Internet users put up mock product pages on e-commerce platforms to “sell” the House complex. A page on Tokopedia 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 government was quick to blame protests 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. He denied that he was avoiding the protests, but the Twitter hashtag #JokowiKabur (“Jokowi Runs Away”) still trended. It wasn’t until 9 October 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

Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto – a Suharto-era general with interests 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 that instead of protesting people should challenge the bill in the Constitutional Court. Maritime Affairs and Investment Minister Luhut Pandjaitan–another Suharto general with extensive coal mining interests–also advised opponents to rely on the courts.

While trade unions and other groups have already announced their intent to challenge the law, given the court's track record, the challenge is unlikely to succeed. In August, the government rushed through revisions to the Constitutional Court law . Judges’ extending judges’ terms and age limits were extended. The change was widely seen as a bribe to ensure rulings favourable to the government.

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 Jakarta Post: “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 5 October plenary session, raising the possibility that it is “legally defective” as it was ratified without being read or even finished.

According to there are now four versions of the law. One is 905 pages long, another is 1,028 pages, a third is 1,035 pages, and a fourth is 812 pages. House Deputy Speaker Azis Syamsuddin claimed that nothing substantial had been altered and the differences were due to font and page sizes. The Jakarta Post said it had found discrepancies between the versions.

Amid the public outcry, employer groups have defended the law. Indonesian Employer Association chair Hariyadi Sukamdani told the Jakarta Post that the law will lead to higher 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 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. As long as the economy remains in trouble, atttacks on workers' rights like this law will only pave the way for discontent and strikes.

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