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Fighting the good fight: Labour activism during COVID-19 in Indonesia

During the pandemic, Indonesia’s unions have found new ways to be heard without resorting to the streets.

Michele Ford
16 June 2020
Indonesia: May Day 2019 in Palembang, South Sumatra
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INA Photo Agency/PA. All rights reserved.
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For the last thirty or so years, Indonesia’s small and divided union movement has relied primarily on its mobilisational capacity in key industrial centres to wrest concessions from employers and government. It would have been no surprise if the COVID-19 pandemic, having robbed them of this weapon, had erased all evidence of the labour movement from the public domain.

Instead, unions have risen to the occasion, using other strategies in their classic repertoire to push for better containment measures and at least stay attempts to use the pandemic to pass an anti-worker law.

A frog in a coconut shell

In Indonesia, to say someone is “like a frog in a coconut shell” is to suggest that they think that they know everything but in fact know nothing, that they are captive to the echoes of their own voice as it ricochets around them. And so has it been with the Indonesian government, faced with the public health implications of COVID-19.

Indonesia is a country in deep denial – denial of the extent to which the virus has spread through the community, denial that stronger public health measures are required to contain it, and denial of the risk it poses to the wellbeing of its 270 million citizens. The depth of this denial has been nowhere more clear than in the responses of the Minister for Health and senior officials, who initially brushed off the threat, suggesting that Indonesia’s location on the equator and the genetic specificities of its people – even divine intervention – would protect the country from harm.

COVID-19 was not officially recognised as a potential epidemic until 28 January 2020, when a month-long state of emergency, requiring the country’s regional authorities to comply with central government policies, was initially declared. A taskforce was not formed until 13 March. And while the national emergency was extended, COVID-19 was not declared a public health emergency until 31 March. When the government did begin dealing with the pandemic, its efforts were at best half-hearted and at worst contradictory.

Contradictory measures

Flights from Hubei province were cancelled from 27 January, followed by flights from the rest of China from 5 February. At this time, no infection had been detected, though a few hundred people subsequently repatriated from Wuhan were quarantined on the island of Natuna. Restrictions quickly followed on travellers from Iran, Italy and South Korea. But it was not until 20 March that travel ceased for certain visa classes and for all travellers from Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. In fact, at a time when other governments were considering closing their borders, in mid-February, President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) announced a series of incentives to encourage tourists to come to Indonesia.

Indonesia’s coronavirus statistics had been suppressed by low levels of testing and by haphazard recording. Its first COVID-19 case was not officially confirmed until 2 March. On 19 March Jokowi announced that massive rapid testing would take place, but by early May only 400 tests per million people had been conducted. By this time, more than double this number had been conducted in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s second-largest country, at over 1,000 tests per million. Vietnam and Thailand, the third- and fourth-largest countries in the region, had each conducted over 2,500 tests per million.

Indonesia’s coronavirus statistics had been suppressed by low levels of testing and by haphazard recording.

As of 1 May, only 10,551 cases and 800 deaths had been recorded in Indonesia, with the capital, Jakarta, accounting for around half the cases and half the deaths. Suspicions about under-reporting were raised when officials drew attention to a spike in the number of burials in the city, which came in at around 2,500 higher in March and April than in the comparable period last year. In the absence of any other extraordinary public health threats, it is safe to assume that many of these deaths were the result of COVID-19.

The government’s public health response

Public health measures have also left many scratching their heads. On 15 March, Jokowi called on Indonesians to work and pray at home. But specific measures for schools and workplaces, and limitations on public worship and other public activities were not announced until 31 March, when a public health emergency was declared.

Even then, regional administrations could only close schools and workplaces or religious activities and gatherings at public places after receiving approval from the Ministry of Health. The government also baulked at halting inter-regional travel despite the looming spectre of mudik¸ the annual exodus of Indonesian Muslims from major cities towards the end of the fasting month. After much prevarication, Jokowi finally announced on 21 April that travel would be prevented from the “red zone” surrounding Jakarta for the period from 24 April until 31 May. This period covered all but the first day of the fasting month as well as the first week of Eid celebrations.

In the absence of clear guidance from the central government, the burden has fallen on the shoulders of local government to deal with the pandemic. The response has been sharpest in Jakarta. The city’s governor restricted public transport and mandated large-scale closures of entertainment and tourist venues in mid-March.

Soon after, he announced a city-wide state of emergency, calling on Jakarta residents outside designated sectors to work at home, reducing the hours public transport was available and its capacity and forbidding gatherings of more than five people and employ social distancing. At the end of the month, he called a halt to long-distance bus travel from Jakarta to the regions in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, only to be blocked by the central government. Other local leaders also acted unilaterally, setting up checkpoints and even closing regional airports.

This patchwork of containment measures, which largely relies on local governments, has been woefully inadequate. Jakarta’s residents rushed to leave the city in the three days before the mudik travel ban came into effect. Attempts continued even after 24 April, with 25,728 vehicles turned back by police in the first ten days of the shutdown. Elsewhere, whole neighbourhoods have been drenched in disinfectant but messages about social distancing have fallen largely on deaf ears. Public transport remains crowded and residents still congregate. In Sulawesi, a district head was reported to police for blasphemy after he attempted to follow central government policy and disperse Friday prayers.

The risk is, of course, that the pandemic will take hold in the country in such a way that it becomes difficult to shake. Although Indonesia is now a middle-income country, its health infrastructure is poor. It has just four doctors and ten hospital beds per 10,000 people. There are only 3,300 ICU beds nationally, a number rising to 8,000 if other specialist units are all operationalised. This higher figure equates to just 0.3 ICU beds per 10,000 people. If COVID-19 is not contained, it is hard to believe that Indonesia can escape a humanitarian disaster of immense proportions.

Indonesia is now a middle-income country… It has just four doctors and ten hospital beds per 10,000 people.

Economic and political concerns

One of the reasons the government has been slow to act, as in other countries, has been out of concern about the economic, social and political effects of stricter public health measures. Although Indonesia was relatively unscathed by the global financial crisis in 2008, memories of the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98 are still raw. The currency crashed and growth in GDP dropped from an average 7.2% per annum for the period 1983–96 to -6.4% for the period 1997–99. The crisis resulted in widespread social unrest, violence and ultimately the fall of the Suharto regime, which had been in power for 32 long years.

Indonesia’s economy has clawed its way back from the devastating losses of that time, with GDP growth averaging around 5% the last several years. But it remains fragile. And COVID-19 is hitting hard. Although much of the economy remains operational, worst-case scenarios in early May predicted that growth in GDP would drop to effectively zero. Government figures suggest that close to three million people had already lost their jobs by mid-April. According to the Finance Minister, some 70 million informal sector workers are at risk. There are murmurings about the possibility of social unrest if things get worse.

According to the Finance Minister, some 70 million informal sector workers are at risk. There are murmurings about the possibility of social unrest if things get worse.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the government has concentrated primarily on saving the economy, despite the attendant risks of that strategy. Its attempts to do so include allocating USD 26.36 billion – about 2.5% of the country’s GDP – for stimulus packages targeting healthcare, social protection and economic recovery. Measures targeting the vulnerable include the distribution of staples and direct cash aid, as well as free electricity for customers on the lowest available electricity supply and some low-cost housing. A raft of subsidies and loans have been put in place for micro, small and medium enterprises.

The manufacturing sector has been a target for the stimulus package. There are now tax incentives for manufacturers, including a deferral on company tax and accelerated VAT refunds in 19 sub-sectors. The government also announced a six-month tax exemption for manufacturing workers with an annual income of up to USD 12,500, a threshold generous enough to account for many in lower and middle management positions as well as those on the production line.

In addition, the Minister for Manpower urged provincial governors not only to actively manage the risks of the workplace transmission, but also to direct employers to pay the wages of workers forced into isolation or furloughed as a result of the virus. The government also expanded its labour insurance program to cover COVID-19 related job losses, under which affected workers are entitled to USD 62.50 per month (or around a quarter of the minimum wage in the capital) for three months.

Organised labour responds

With such generous measures in place, it would seem that the labour movement should have few concerns. But in Indonesia – as in many comparable countries – there is a big gap between policy and practice. Unions are right to be worried about the potential threat to members’ livelihoods and health.

Indonesia’s tiny labour movement was already under pressure when COVID-19 hit. It had done surprisingly well carving out space for itself since the Suharto regime fell, re-establishing independent unions that, though not strong on conventional measures, punched above their weight. In just two decades, these unions went from being politically invisible to being wooed by governors and presidential candidates. They also had some serious economic wins, leveraging their mobilisational power to convince government officials to side with them in local wage councils to achieve stunning increases in minimum wages. In 2013, the minimum wage increased by an average of 45 percent in metro areas. In one industrial district, it increased by a massive 57.6 percent.

But unions soon became the victims of their own success. After a massive surge in organised labour’s economic and political influence in the period between 2009 and 2014, the government hit back. In 2015, it introduced a formula by which minimum wage rises were to be calculated that effectively obliterated the function of the local wage councils as a bargaining arena. This, in turn, undermined unions’ political clout, which had been closely tied to their ability to turn members out to demonstrate during the annual cycle of minimum wage negotiations.

The government took further steps to tame the unions in February 2020, when it introduced its Omnibus Law on Job Creation to the legislature. The draft law, which promised to improve the ease of doing business and attract foreign investment, was set to amend 73 existing laws dealing with everything from environmental protection to tax provisions.

But, as the chair of the employers’ association has noted, “labour reform is the main spirit” of the draft law. Of particular concern to unions was the proposed reduction of severance payments, long a target of the business lobby, which in the absence of unemployment benefits provide vital support to retrenched workers trying to find a new job. But, if passed, the law would also remove provisions for paid leave for family reasons, relax controls on outsourcing and further adjust the minimum wage-setting process. In addition, dismissals could no longer be appealed in the industrial relations court.

Unions were already worried about the risks of factory closures, as well as the risks to members who could not work at home. But they were even more deeply exercised about the fact that the legislature was continuing to discuss the draft law.

Unions and environmental NGOs had begun mobilising before the COVID-19 had hit Indonesia, but social distancing regulations eliminated space for lawful protest. The unions had cancelled a planned demonstration on 23 March because of the pandemic. But eleven days later, when the legislature made the decision to go ahead with its deliberations, they threatened to mount a large-scale but socially distanced demonstration to stop the legislature in its tracks. Driving the process was Said Iqbal, the leader of the Confederation of Indonesian Trade Unions, who threatened to bring 50,000 workers together in protest outside the legislature. Responding to journalists’ questions about his plan to flout social distancing regulations, he responded by saying, “We feel threatened. First, the threat to our lives because we are still working during the pandemic. Second, the threat to our future due to the omnibus bill deliberation.”

The leaders of all three main confederations subsequently announced that a joint protest involving hundreds of thousands of workers would be staged on 30 April. Perhaps concerned about the social contagion effect – instructions had been issued directing police to take action against anyone who criticised officials for the way that they were handling the pandemic – Jokowi responded with alacrity, summoning the confederations’ leaders to the Presidential Palace on 22 April to hammer out a compromise.

Two days later, Jokowi announced that he had done a deal with the legislature to postpone discussion of the section of the draft law dealing with industrial relations. The postponement, he said, would provide an opportunity for stakeholder input. In response, the confederations called off the 30 April demonstration. They also instructed their affiliates to mark May Day not by descending on the streets, as they habitually did, but by donating medical equipment to hospitals and clinics and masks to retrenched workers and to members of the community.

Their social media campaigns have continued, highlighting health concerns and job losses during the pandemic, and the ongoing risks to workers associated with the Omnibus Law. At a time of great uncertainty, they had found a way to avert catastrophe, at least for the moment – in the process giving hope that they will continue to be able to fight the good fight post COVID-19.

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