Indonesia: Millions rise against oppressive law

Trade unions protest against the Ominibus Law, 16 April 2020 (Photo: Monitor Civicus/Wikimedia Commons)

Since Monday, 5th October, when Indonesia’s President Jokowi announced the Job Creation Act or ‘Omnibus Law’, Indonesian youth and working class, together with other sections of society, launched a massive protest nationwide. The government’s move, aimed at making capitalist investment easier – eroding workers’ rights and neglecting environmental health – has angered millions of Indonesians.

More than 5,000 students from 300 universities sparked the movement by gathering and marching to the Presidential Palace in protest against the new law. The Indonesian Confederation of Trade Unions (GSBI) affirmed its support and more than one million workers under their umbrella left their factories and workplaces to join the growing protests across Indonesia. Workers and young people from Lampung, Bandung, Tangerang, Makassar, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Palembang, Jakarta, Semarang, Cikarang, West Papua and other places, have taken to the streets to defend their rights from the attacks by the government and the employer class in Indonesia. The protest continued to spread to other areas in the following weeks and still continues to grow.

Deteriorating economic and social conditions

The Omnibus Law was tabled in Parliament as long ago as September last year but was not passed due to strong protests from the youth and the students heroically going into the streets. Two people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured in clashes between Indonesian youth and government security personnel. This did not dampen the fighting spirit of the youth and the working class who have waged a determined struggle to defeat the government’s agenda. ( https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/10/22/escalating-anti-government-protests-for-a-mass-working-class-party-for-workers-young-people-poor-farmers-and-the-oppressed/ ).

However, President Jokowi and his cabinet in the coalition government have now used the emergency situation due to Covid-19 to pass the law in a hurry. In a situation of a health crisis, where more than 12,000 people have been victims of the pandemic, the Indonesian government did not expect there would be a massive street protest as a direct reaction from the people to the passing the Omnibus Law. But, as witnessed for more than three weeks now, the threat of Covid19 has not succeeded in weakening the fighting spirit of the Indonesian youth and workers. The actions of the students and calls to take to the streets are a symbol of protest against the Omnibus Law – the response comes from millions of working class and ordinary people being gripped by deteriorating living conditions.

Just as in September, last year, Indonesian authorities are again using violent force against the working class and the youth who participate in any of the numerous protests or strike actions nationwide. Peaceful demonstrations organised by ordinary people have become a battleground with the authorities using excessive force to try and break the protests. More than ten thousand youth and workers have been detained by government forces. Hundreds have been hospitalised due to severe injuries.

Indonesia is facing the worst Covid-19 crisis in the Southeast Asia region and the situation is getting worse every day. Millions of workers in the formal and informal sectors have lost their jobs and the country’s economy is heading for a worse recession than in the 1997 financial crisis. The IMF initially predicted back in June that Indonesia’s GDP would shrink by 0.3% over the year. It has been forced to adjust its forecast after a dramatic increase in Covid 19 cases. Around 340,000 people have been infected and there is an average of 4,000 new cases daily. Now the IMF expects Indonesia’s GDP to decline by at least 1.5% – five times greater than its initial forecast. In the second quarter of this year, Indonesia’s GDP declined by 5.32% and most economists are estimating an inevitable recession before the end of the third quarter of 2020.

The failure of the Jokowi leadership

Jokowi originally appeared in the Indonesian political arena as a progressive figure and as the hope of the Indonesian people (often compared to Obama by the mainstream media). He has disappointed the majority of the population so far (https://www.socialistworld.net/2014/11/16/indonesia-new-hope-president-faces-intense-pressures/ ). His government has only given priority to rich capitalists to the point of neglecting the lives of millions of poor people who do not get to enjoy the fruits of their own labour and the productivity of the country. The introduction of the Omnibus Law reveals the market-friendly nature of Jokowi’s government, which allows capitalists to maximise their exploitation of the environment and the labour power of the Indonesian masses.

Despite Jokowi’s propaganda about economic development, the working class and ordinary people are constantly facing deteriorating living conditions. Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, President Jokowi had already become less popular, especially among the poor population. He did not get a large majority in the 2019 general election (https://www.socialistworld.net/2019/07/04/indonesia-jokowi-re-elected-president-for-second-term-as-discontent-deepens/ ).

With the government’s failure to tackle the Covid 19 pandemic effectively, the people’s anger can no longer be suppressed. The move to try again to pass the oppressive Omnibus Law has sparked mass protests and struggles in every corner of the country.

With a population of over 260 million people, the Indonesian coalition government has only allocated a total of 63.9 billion US dollars in Covid-19 emergency assistance. Comparatively, the amount is less than the expenditure for such funds of smaller countries in the region like Malaysia and Singapore. Furthermore, even seven months into the pandemic, due to various technical and bureaucratic issues, only about 20% of the aid has been successfully channelled to the people who need it.

Public health infrastructure in Indonesia is facing a crisis in the lack of supplies of health equipment and medical staff to deal with Covid19 cases which have doubled in just six weeks. Lack of PPE, treatment centres, ICU beds, testing kits, medical personnel, emergency equipment, such as ventilators and so on, are causing chaos, especially in places with a high number of infected cases, such as Jakarta.

Covid-19 has resulted in four million job losses which are contributing to the rising poverty rate in Indonesia, which was already over 10% even before the pandemic. Yet the richest people in Indonesia have managed to increase their wealth without any obstacles. The fifteen richest amongst them even made it into the Forbes list of ‘Real Time Billionaires’ last June.

This reflects the character of the Indonesian government. It is only focused on ensuring the profits of wealthy capitalists, even in times of crisis where millions of ordinary people are in urgent need of emergency assistance. Although all the wealth of the capitalists comes from the natural resources of the earth and the labour of millions of oppressed people, that wealth is not utilised for the good of the majority even at dire times such as this.

The introduction of the Omnibus Law is a government move to preserve the will of corporate members; owners of large corporations and greedy capitalists in pursuit of personal gain when the majority of the country’s population is struggling with poverty, loss of jobs and an endless battle with the Covid19 pandemic.

The movement against the Omnibus Law

The last time such an economic recession hit Indonesia, the youth and the working class rose up and overthrew the dictator Suharto who had ruled the country by force for more than three decades. All the democratic rights that are enjoyed by Indonesians today are the result of the struggle that defeated the Suharto military regime in 1998. The history of struggle and victory is still fresh in the memory of the masses. Millions of workers with strong and clear leadership and organised trade unions can provide the lifeblood of this people’s movement. It has the potential to spread further and grow.

If passed, the Omnibus law would not only prey on the working class by giving power to the employer class to increase their exploitation of workers. It would also have a negative impact on the majority of the youth and oppressed people in Indonesia. In the name of encouraging investment and job creation, many of the existing workers’ rights under the Job Creations Act would be seriously eroded. The plantation and mining land code in the Act would provide flexibility to private companies to seize produce and land from local communities by force. In addition, this Act would also give an advantage to private developers by loosening regulations protecting the environment. For this reason, agricultural workers, farmers and environmental activists, as well as many grassroots organisations, have also joined the call for the abolition of the Omnibus Law immediately. Several Islamic organisations have also responded to this call and are organising protests among their members to support the growing mass movement.

The young people and students who have sparked this mass movement should be applauded and their struggles emulated elsewhere. Although protests against governments, sparked by the youth, have begun in other countries, such as Thailand, in Indonesia, the movement has garnered tremendous energy from the participation of millions of workers who have gone on strike. The leaders of the trade unions, who should be at the head of the working class, were only forced to give support to this movement after a large section of workers had already taken to the streets. This reveals the weakness of the trade unions’ leadership, which are not as active in leading the struggle as is required by the majority of their members.

In the current Covid-19 pandemic situation, the youth, working-class and oppressed of Indonesia have lost hope in all mainstream political parties that are in government at this time. All those that have taken power, so far, have proven that they will always prioritise the wishes of the capitalist class and marginalise the ordinary people. Therefore, the Indonesian people have no choice but to build a political leadership that will not only strengthen the people’s struggle but will also challenge the dominance of the capitalist class over the politics and economy of any given society.

The youth and the working class in Indonesia should call on the leadership of the trade unions to announce a general strike and organise all workers in a struggle to scrap the Omnibus Law and demand adequate welfare and health facilities for ordinary people.

The movement should be democratic and based on the struggles of the working class and the poor masses. Youth organisations, trade unions, agricultural workers, environmental activists, human rights advocates and grassroots organisations can all be united under one umbrella of struggle. A meaningful alternative can be achieved for the majority of the oppressed people.

Need for a socialist alternative

Since the 1998 ‘Reformation’ movement that overthrew the dictator Suharto successive Indonesian governments were dominated by so-called ‘progressive’ politicians. They carefully safeguarded the capitalist system which only serves the rich and powerful capitalists. Although various democratic rights have been enjoyed in recent years in Indonesia compared with the dictatorial era of Suharto, the working class and poor people have not yet seen any significant change in their daily lives. Every election year, dozens of political parties throw around empty slogans and promise to get the people’s vote. But when they win, all the promises are forgotten in an instant and they continue to work for the ‘well-being’ only of the rich capitalist class.

The working class and the ordinary people in Indonesia need an economic alternative that will prioritise the aspirations of the majority and oppose the agenda of the minority corporate capitalist elites. Socialism places power in the hands of the working class and the ordinary people to determine the direction of the economy – the distribution of wealth and fair economic policies that are always in favour of the masses. A government formed and controlled democratically by working class organisations and ordinary people is the basis of a socialist system and the starting point for progressing towards the transformation of society.

Youth groups and working class organisations should campaign with a programme that brings progressive demands under a socialist banner and equip themselves with a clear perspective to fight the free market economic order and fulfil the will of the people. With demands such as living wages and union rights for the working class, free and quality education for students, land ownership rights and environmental protection for farmers and ordinary masses, democratic rights and so on, all struggling sections of society can be united in one determined struggle. All these demands and aspirations of the masses can only be achieved by challenging the economic and political system of capitalism which is weakening every day.

A strong and united force of the working class, agricultural workers, farmers and youth would certainly be able to defeat the oppressive Omnibus Law. But, if the same political and economic structure is maintained, the same problems will continue to plague Indonesian society.

Faced with economic recession and a worsening pandemic, the masses of Indonesia are in need of a solution which can show them a way out of this crisis. The struggle of the people in Indonesia requires a cohesive leadership that can address and solve the day to day issues facing society. Therefore, the growing movement must adopt the perspective of changing the political and economic structure of capitalism from one that only works for the capitalist elites to a democratic socialist system based on the will of the masses.

A fighting programme:

  • Trade unions should organise general strike action now to eliminate proposed ‘Omnibus Law’
  • Fight for democratic rights for all – freedom of speech, of protest, of organising trade unions and workers’ parties
  • Build strong trade unions with leaderships elected and under the control of the membership
  • Build a mass working-class party supported by farmers, students and other oppressed people to fight against the capitalist agenda
  • Fight for the rights of oppressed minorities and the right to self-determination of the people of West Papua
  • Stop environmental pollution
  • For socialism! Nationalise private corporations and financial companies that hold back the Indonesian economy and plan production and society under the democratic control and management of elected representatives of the working class and ordinary people for a fair and equitable distribution of wealth, to eradicate poverty and economic injustice.
    Build solidarity with the working class and the oppressed people of South East Asia, and internationally towards the construction of internationalism and a socialist world.

The CWI relies on the donations from working class people around the world to fund our campaigns.Please donate towards building the CWI.