Why Indonesia's New Jobs Creation Bill Sparked Mass Protests

Critics say the massive bill would hurt workers, indigenous people, religious minorities and the environment.
October 15, 2020, 1:28pm
Indonesia
Protesters clash with police in Indonesia during a nationwide strike against a new law which critics fear favors investors at the expense of labor rights and the environment, in Medan, on Oct. 8, 2020. PHOTO: IVAN DAMANIK / AFP

An ambitious new jobs creation bill in Indonesia has sparked waves of protests across the country. During a three-day demonstration last week, police fired tear gas and used water cannons to disperse chaotic demonstrations after thousands took to the streets in opposition.

President Joko Widodo is set to sign the final version of the nearly 1,000-page "Omnibus law" next week.

It was designed to attract foreign investors to the Southeast Asian country's economy by reducing red tape. But critics say the new rules will hurt millions of Indonesian workers, many of whom lost their jobs during one of the worst outbreaks in Asia

Here are some of the main reasons the government has faced pushback on the law.

Wages and employment

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Indonesia wants to make it easier to do business in the country. But labor advocates say that under the new law, governors have the power to set minimum wages which were previously applied at more local levels. They say the change is harmful because it doesn't take into account different living costs in different areas.

Employers also have more power in negotiating contracts, giving severance pay and laying off employees, according to advocates.

Muhammad Isnur from the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation said the fact that the discussion was dominated by businessmen tilts the bill in their favor.

"They took an economic approach from the perspective of investors and business associations. Public participation is essential in a democratic country, but the citizens' opinions were ignored," he told VICE News.

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Protesters attend a rally against a controversial new law passed last week which critics fear will favor investors at the expense of labor rights and the environment, in Jakarta on Oct. 13, 2020. PHOTO: BAY ISMOYO / AFP

Environmental risks

Activists believe the rush to create new jobs and investment can have a negative impact on the environment. They say proposed revisions do not properly allow for penalties against individuals or companies who fail to manage toxic waste. In the new law, there must be a higher standard of proof that hazardous waste was dumped into rivers or the sea.

"There is a concern that the provision to impose penalties will become blurred," said Boy Evan Sembiring, National Executive Manager for The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI).

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Protesters launch fireworks towards police following a clash during a nationwide strike against a proposed new labor law in Indonesia on Oct. 8, 2020. Photo: YUSUF WAHIL / AFP

Religious minority oppression

In a part that has alarmed rights groups, authorities are tasked with monitoring the traditional beliefs of people that can harm division or threaten national unity in the Muslim-majority nation. Meanwhile, the new law defines "deviant beliefs" as anything whose ideology conflicts with Indonesian values, which indigenous leaders see as a direct challenge.

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Isnur thinks the provision will only fuel "stigma, discrimination and human rights violations that have been experienced by religious minorities or traditional belief groups for decades."

Lack of transparency

One of the main problems has been transparency and public input. The final draft caused widespread confusion as there were multiple versions.

The first draft that circulated on Oct. 5 was 905 pages long. New versions keep appearing from 1,028 pages to 1,052 pages and 1,035 pages. On Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Speaker Azis Syamsuddin said in a virtual press conference that the final version only has 812 pages.

Those who want to debate the law have also been threatened with legal action. In one case, a critic was arrested for allegedly spreading hoaxes.

"The deliberation process is very secretive," Director of Jakarta Legal Aid Institute Arif Maulana told VICE News.