New bills pushed through during pandemic a setback for women’s and workers’ rights

Indonesia’s lockdown has it made it difficult for civil society organisations and the public to scrutinise and keep track of controversial legislation being pushed through or suggested during the Covid-19 pandemic – to the detriment of the rights and welfare of women and workers.

Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

Magdalene is an online publication that offers fresh perspectives beyond the typical gender and cultural confines who channel the voices of feminists

By Tabayyun Pasinringi, Magdalene

From the much-criticised Omnibus Bill on Job Creation to the regressive Family Resilience Bill to an increased rein on government critics online, the pandemic has given cause for concern when it comes to democracy in Indonesia.

It has been two years since “Emmy” hung up her fishing nets to work at a seaweed warehouse in Maros Regency, about a 40-minute drive from South Sulawesi’s provincial capital of Makassar. The 44-year-old left fishing because the sea had gotten too polluted after the massive reclamation and construction of the Makassar new port by the state-owned PT Pelabuhan Indonesia IV.

Emmy misses the sea, which had given her a decent livelihood and freedom for much of her life. She used to earn Rp150,000 a day (about US$10), three times what she made at the warehouse where she also struggled with the long hours and heavy workload.

“At the warehouse, I had to dry 350 kilogram of seaweed per day and was paid Rp 50,000. If I didn’t achieve that target, they wouldn’t pay me. I had to keep working until I hit the target, otherwise I didn’t get paid,” she told Magdalene.

“It was like slavery,” she added. She has since left the job and is now working as a cleaning lady, a part time job that leaves her financially vulnerable, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“At the warehouse, I had to dry 350 kilogram of seaweed per day and was paid Rp 50,000. If I didn’t achieve that target, they wouldn’t pay me. I had to keep working until I hit the target, otherwise I didn’t get paid.”

The pandemic has hit a large chunk of the Indonesian population financially, but now there is another storm coming: problematic legislations that would affect many people, including women like Emmy.

From the speeding up of a massive cluster bill popularly called the Omnibus Law on Job Creation to the introduction of a bill that aims to limit women’s domestic role to an increased rein on government critics online, the pandemic has given cause for concern when it comes to democracy in Indonesia.

From her time in the fishing community fighting corporation over sea pollution, Emmy has become more political, particularly through the women’s non-governmental organisation Solidaritas Perempuan Anging Mamiri. These days she, like many other activists, is fighting to stop the Omnibus Bill on Job Creation from being passed by the House of Representatives in Jakarta.

The government initiative bill aims at improving the ease of doing business in Indonesia and attracting investment in Indonesia. It was hailed by the business sector for its focus on streamlining business licenses, further opening up the climate to foreign investment and making the labour market more flexible. If passed, it would amend 79 laws that cover a wide range of issues from business and education to halal certification and regional government powers, impacting virtually everyone in Indonesia.

The bill has been under attack as it is seen as being skewed towards businesses and investors, and potentially limiting the rights of workers, remuneration and job security. Critics warn of the strong role of the central government, the less stringent environmental impact analysis and building permit requirements and the impact it would have on women’s labour.

Emmy and her fellow coastal workers are among those who expressed their disapproval of the Omnibus Bill: “This bill is unfair and will harm us at the bottom of the economic bracket. Workers are already exploited. If the bill is passed, business owners will be even more irresponsible,” she said.

The spirit to create a more flexible labour law, one of which is to make it easier for companies to recruit and dismiss its workers, will impact the largely-women factory workers, many of whom are contract workers, labour and women, activists have said.

Dian Septi, Secretary General of the Federation of Workers Across Factories and a member of Perempuan Mahardhika women NGO, said the bill neglects women’s rights and attributed it to the masculine capitalistic economic system.

After some uproars earlier, the government has maintained that the menstrual leave – currently stipulated in the 2003 Labour Law and was seen as quite progressive when it was passed – will not be taken out in the Omnibus Bill. But women’s rights activists point out that the bill addresses neither this nor maternity leave. In reality, both menstrual and maternity leaves, though guaranteed in the existing 2003 Labour Law, are still not accessible for many workers, particularly at factories. Dian Septi says many women workers are too afraid to tell their employers that they are pregnant, or even to claim their menstrual leaves, fearing they will get fired for being unproductive.

“The government neglects to protect women as productive resources. In the capitalistic economy, productivity is defined as long work hours compensated by low wage – and in some cases no wage. This strengthens the business owners’ control over women’s bodies, and it happens with the government’s consent,” she said.

Graphic showing the increased use of ITE law in Indonesia

Building family resilience: relegating women to secondary position

Other countries have also passed problematic bills during the pandemic. In Poland, the government proposes a regressive bill to tighten abortion rules. Coronavirus emergency law in Hungary contains a five-year penalty for fake news distribution, threatening independent media that cover the pandemic more accurately than pro-government media. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a bill that can silence government critics. The Thai Government criminalises netizens who criticise the government and the monarch with a new regulation on Covid-19 handling.

In Indonesia, another bill has been given a push since the pandemic has caused an uproar among women’s movements and organisations. The Family Resilience Bill first made headlines last year, drafted by five legislators from Islamic and non-Islamic parties. This year, parliament decided to take on the bill, while at the same time removing from this year’s legislation agenda the long-awaited Anti-Sexual Violence Bill, which been proposed for nearly a decade, on the ground of it being too complex.

Experts have warned against the bill’s spirit of regulating people’s private lives and its strong religious undertone that reflects an increasingly religiously conservative society. The bill also does not take into account and even contradicts existing legislations such as the Domestic Violence Law and the 1984 Law on the Ratification of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women).

The Family Resilience Bill upholds rigid and traditional gender roles that relegate women to the domestic realm. A wife’s duty is to take care of her household, protect the unity of her family and fulfil the rights of her husband and children as according to the religious norms, social ethics and the law, Article 25 says. A husband is also defined as the head of the family.

Maidina Rahmawati, a researcher at the Institute of Criminal Justice Reform (ICJR), warned of the legislative attempt to preserve gender-based discriminations. She points at an article that stipulates that a husband holds the role to resolve domestic conflict, implying that a women does not have the capacity to resolve conflict.

“This contradicts existing commitments made by the state through, among others, the ratification of CEDAW, gender mainstreaming instruments and other efforts to create equality in Indonesia,” she said. “In fact, it is the government bodies that fight for gender equality, such as the Ministry of Women Empowerment and Child Protection, that should be criticising this bill.”

Like the Omnibus Bill, parliamentary discussion over this bill has not been held transparently.

“People don’t feel represented because the lawmakers seem to be rubber-stamping the government’s decisions, when the same decisions and policies are criticised by a lot of people.”

Taking advantage of the pandemic

The process to deliberate the Omnibus Bill began early last year in a similarly rushed way. Back then the bill was set as priority legislation to be passed a couple of months before DPR (the People’s Representative Council of Indonesia) finished its 2014-2019 term, before the new legislators were sworn in. The move was met with massive protests across the country for days, and eventually parliament decided to delay the process and handed the bill to the new batch of legislators. This year the process started again and was sped up, despite calls for its delay amidst the pandemic and the consequent lockdown.

In August, President Joko Widodo said the Omnibus Law would be able to boost the economy post-Covid-19 and increase investment. Moreover, the bill will simplify and ease investment, keeping a pandemic-induced recession at bay, he added.

The physical distancing policy – called Large-Scale Social Restriction (PSBB) – implemented in cities across the country have it made hard for civil society organisations and the public to take part in the bill’s deliberation process. The bill was also not available for public scrutiny.

Parliamentary sessions to discuss the bill have taken place online and offline. Offline events would be held outside of the DPR complex, often on Saturdays or during parliamentary recess period – although the latter is a violation of the parliamentary law.

“It’s clear that they have made it difficult for us to join the House’s sessions during the pandemic. The hearings were not always held at the House. Sometimes they would have (unannounced) hearings on Saturdays, sometimes in a hotel, making it even more inaccessible,” said Asfinawati, Director of the independent organisation the Foundation of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI) which provides legal assistance to the poor and marginalised communities.

“For online sessions, we would receive a link so we could attend it. But when we made comments on the chat column, we were told that we were going to be kicked out. There is absolutely no room for us to express our aspirations,” she added.

The bill is expected to be passed on 8 October at the House’s Assembly Meeting. In response, the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation (KSPI) said it planned to hold a national strike on 6-8 October to oppose the bill.

Protests against the bill started as early as April, when women’s rights group and other communities across the nation urged the government to postpone the deliberation of the bill and focus on handling the spread of Covid-19. On 24 September, which coincided with the National Agriculture Day, protesters gathered at 60 locations across the country, demanding agrarian reform and rejecting the Omnibus Law that they insisted would affect farmers badly. These protests have been less than effective because of the pandemic and the social restriction policies.

The number of protesters may be smaller due to social restrictions, but it has not softened the response of the law enforcement, which arrested protesters at the 24 September rallies.

President Joko Widodo has aimed at passing the bill before the end of his 100 days in office in his second term. Earlier in the year, he ordered the chief of National Police, head of the intelligence body and the attorney general to communicate with the opponents of the bill to ensure its acceptance – a move slightly reminiscent of the authoritarian New Order regime.

Asfinawati from YLBHI said: “What do police and BIN (the Indonesian State Intelligence Army) have to do with the deliberation of a bill? The crucial party in deliberating a law is the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, along with related ministries and institutions – that’s who we should be communicating with.”

JAKARTA, INDONESIA: Indonesian policemen protect themselves from rocks being thrown by protesters at a demonstration organized by a coalition of Muslim groups against Indonesia’s recently passed omnibus law. Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Draconian measures against government critics

Maidina said, as there are yet signs that the pandemic would end soon, there must be a better way to ensure public participation in legislation function. Information transparency is crucial, as is the parliament’s duty to monitor the government’s handling of Covid-19.

“People don’t feel represented because the lawmakers seem to be rubber-stamping the government’s decisions, when the same decisions and policies are criticised by a lot of people,” she said.

On the other hand, the pandemic has seen an increase in the use of the Law of Information and Electronic Transaction (UU ITE) to muzzle freedom of expression. The Southeast Asia Freedom of Expression Network (SAFEnet) has noted that in the 11 years since the law was passed in 2008, there were 285 criminal cases using the law. In contrast,  in 2020, particularly after the pandemic hit, 110 suspects have been charged by this law, most of them for libel and hate speech allegations.

About 40 percent of these lawsuits were filed by public officials, including government heads, state institution heads, cabinet ministers, and security officers, according to SAFEnet. They are followed by the general public (29 percent), professionals (27 percent) and businesses (5 percent). Targets of these lawsuits include journalists, media companies, activists, university lecturers/teachers, artists, writers and the general public.  

In the past, the law has also been used to prosecute women for a variety of things, from campaigning for body positive image on social media like actress Tara Basro, to sexual violence survivors, like teacher Baiq Nuril, who reported her principal for sending sexually harassing text messages.

In April, after criticising the presidential special staff and the government’s handling of the pandemic on social media, researcher Ravio Patra found his phone hacked resulting in some provocative posts that he did not make. This led to his arrest. He was initially charged with Article 28 of the ITE Law on fake news, and later with Article 28 on hate speech and hostility against individual/group. He was released following public uproar.

“The ITE Law is used by the authority to muzzle freedom of expression. It is a serious threat for democracy,” said Dian Septi, the labor and women activist.

Said Asfinawati of YLBHI: “This is the worst period since the 1998 Reforms in terms of the government’s and parliament’s listening to people’s aspirations. The only way to reject these bills is to make our voices heard, because once they are passed, everyone will be affected.”

Tabayyun Pasinringi is a reporter for the Indonesian independent media outlet Magdalene.
The article was originally published 2 October 2020 by Magdalene. Read the original article here. 

Background: Covid-19 in Indonesia

The Indonesian government announced the first two Covid-19 cases in mid-March and quickly followed through with calls to conduct work and school from home. But government’s moves since have been criticised as slow and unfocused, and seen as underestimating the scale of the problem form.

Officially, the government has not implemented a nationwide lockdown, but it has approved “large scale social restrictions” for regencies and cities. By late May, Indonesia had started loosening restrictions, saying it was embracing a “new normal”, but the stance received much criticism as the number of cases by then was still rising. Indeed, Indonesia now has the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.

Entering the final quarter of 2020, restrictions were again made more stringent, starting in the capital Jakarta, as the number of cases crept up again. By the middle of October, there were more than 380,000 Covid-19 cases in Indonesia, with more than 300,000 people counted as having recovered. Around 13,000 had succumbed to the disease.

Indonesia’s Health Ministry has so far tested more than 2 million people, but health advocates fret that this remains a small number against the country’s total population of nearly 270 million. 

The Covid-19 testing rate in Indonesia is in fact the lowest among countries with at least 100,000 cases.

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