It has been two years since “Emmy” hang 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 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 Rp50,000. 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 pabndemic.
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, 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 a cause for concern when it comes to democracy in Indonesia.
From her time in the fishing community fighting corporation for sea pollution, Emmy has become more political, particularly through the women non-governmental organization Solidaritas Perempuan Anging Mamiri. These days she, like many other activists, are 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 attract 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 labor 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 labor.
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 labor 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, labor and women activists have said.
Dian Septi, Secretary General of the Federation of Workers Across Factories and 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 Labor Law and was seen as quite progressive when it was passed – will not be taken out in the Omnibus Bil. But women’s rights activists point out that the Bill neither address this nor the maternity leave. In reality, both menstrual and maternity leaves, though guaranteed in the existing 2003 Labor 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 take 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.
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 finished its 2014-2019 term, before the new legislators were sworn in. The move was met with massive protests across the country for days that eventually parliament decided to delay the process and handed the bill to the new legislators. This year the process started again and was sped up, despite calls for its delay amidst pandemic and the lockdown.
In August, President Joko Widodo said the Omnibus Law will be able to boost the economy post-COVID-19 and increase investment. Moreover, the bill will simplify and ease investment, keeping the country protected from a pandemic-induced recession, he added.
Physical distancing policies – called Large-Scale Social Restriction (PSBB) – implemented in cities across the country have it made hard for civil society organizations and the public to take part in the bill’s deliberation process. The bill was also not available for public.
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 violation of the Parliamentary Law.
“It’s clear that they have made it difficult for us to join House’s sessions during the pandemics. The hearing 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 Indonesian Legal Aid Institute Foundation (YLBHI).
“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 Oct. 8 at the House’s Assembly Meeting. In response to this, the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Union (KSPI) says it plans to go on a national strike on Oct. 6-8 to oppose the Bill.
Protests against the bill have 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 focused on handling the spread of COVID-19. On Sept. 24, 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 restriction, but it has not lessened the response of the law enforcement, which went ahead and arrested protesters on Sept. 24 rallies.
President Joko Widodo has targeted to the pass 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 have to do with the deliberation of a bill? The crucial party in deliberating a law is the Minister of Justice and Human Rights, along with related ministries and institutions – that’s who we should be communicating with.”
Building Family Resilient: Relegating Women to Secondary Position
Other countries have also pass problematic bills during the pandemic. In Poland, the government proposes regressive bill to tighten abortion rule. Coronavirus emergency law in Hungary contains 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 silent government critics. Thai Government criminalizes netizens who criticize the government and the monarch with a new regulation on COVID-19 handling.
In Indonesia, another bill that has been given a push since the pandemic has caused uproars among women’s movements and organizations. The Family Resilience Bill first made a headline 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 removed from this year’s legislation agenda the much-needed 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 perpetuates rigid gender roles that relegates women to the domestic realm. A wife’s duty is to take care of the household, protect the unity of a family, and to fulfill 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, other gender mainstreaming instruments and other efforts to create equality in Indonesia,” she said, then noted: “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 criticizing this bill.”
Like the Omnibus Bill, parliamentary discussion over this bill has not been held transparently.
Draconian Measure against Government Critics
Maidina said as there is yet signs that the pandemic would end soon, there must be a better way to ensure public participation in legislation function. Information openness and 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 rubberstamp the government’s decisions, when the same decisions and policies are criticized 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, 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 researcher Ravio Patra found his phone hacked, which led to his arrest, after criticizing the presidential special staff and the government’s handling of the pandemic. 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.
Asfinawati of YLBHI called on people to reject the problematic bills: “This is the worst period since the 1998 Reforms in terms of the government’ and parliament’s listening to people’s aspiration. The only way to reject the bills is to make our voices heard, because once they are passed, everyone will be affected.”
This story is part of a pan-Asian series on rights repressed during Covid-19 pandemic initiated by International Media Support (IMS).