The Omnibus Law is an affront to democracy

Update: At the time of writing, the Omnibus Law on Job Creation was still being discussed in Parliament. By the time of publication, the Law has entered into force and approved by President Joko Widodo.

In the last few days, Indonesia has seen protests flaring up in major cities across the archipelago. From Jakarta to Parepare, workers and students have risen against the government, voicing and expressing their discontent with the Omnibus Law on Job Creation (Undang-Undang Cipta Kerja). The protests are on a scale like last year’s protests against a series of Bills, most notably a draft revision to Indonesia’s Criminal Code and the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). Their discontent is directed at many aspects of the pro-business omnibus law, such as its potentially detrimental effect on labour protection and environmental protections. The government has mostly dismissed these concerns and criticism as “hoaxes” and insists that the omnibus law would increase employment and attract investment, which is something the country needs to restart its pandemic-stricken economy.

But let us put aside the potential detriments or benefits that the Omnibus Law might cause in the future, and instead focus on how the law came into being. Many have criticised the Omnibus Law for its lack of transparency, citing hushed meetings with little public oversight, a lack of public participation and consultation, and a peculiar rush to get things done. The creation of the Omnibus Law, then, represents a backslide in Indonesia’s democracy.

An in-depth analysis of the Omnibus Law also proves to be futile. At the time of writing, there is no final authoritative version of the Omnibus Law that is available to the public. Instead, there are five different versions that have been floating around the internet. The government apparatus has used this to its advantage, requesting that people “read the draft first” before criticising. Any form of critical analysis could then be deflected by noting that they weren’t “criticising the right draft”. Which one then is the real version, which could be legitimately criticised and even appealed? What did the lawmakers sign into force then?

The government’s undemocratic character is also evident in its response to the public protests. Edward Aspinall notes that the current tactics are remarkably similar to those used by law enforcement during the New Order, such as propagating counternarratives and visits to universities to dissuade participation. He further observes the language used by the government is a “carbon copy” of New Order discourse. Government officials have been quick to point towards alleged mysterious masterminds (dalang) behind the demonstrations, even saying that they “already know” the identity of these masterminds. Likewise, the Police have arrested alleged anarchist groups, who are believed to be the instigators of the protests, and alleged “paid protestors”. The language used here is inherently condescending, as it insinuates these groups are incapable of organization without the help of a near-omnipotent and elusive mastermind. The same narrative was at play in last year’s protests.

As the struggle against the Omnibus Law continues, one can only hope that it will later be amended or, at best, repealed entirely. While Jokowi continues to tout the Law’s importance in creating jobs, it is clear enough that it is not something that the people wanted. Eroding worker and environmental protections under the pretense of job creation, especially in a process that did not involve the public, will unlikely be attractive to foreign investors. In fact, 36 investment firms have already penned an open letter citing their concerns of the Law. This is in addition to the concerns conveyed by global worker unions. In the end, who is this Law supposed to benefit?   

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