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Indonesia's omnibus bill is a ticking timebomb

Things could turn nasty if vague provisions that could harm workers and indigenous people are not addressed

Indonesia's omnibus bill is a ticking timebomb

Protests over Indonesia's controversial job creation bill could intensify if President Joko Widodo fails to address people's concerns. (Photo: AFP)

President Joko Widodo signed Indonesia’s omnibus bill on job creation earlier this month. It was approved by the Peoples’ Representative Council a month earlier in October.

According to Widodo, the bill is urgently needed to simplify existing regulations that appear overly bureaucratic.  

This bill, however, remains controversial. Over the last two months or so, protests have been carried out, mainly in Jakarta, by workers and students.

Aside from street protests, the bill is also being reportedly challenged in the Constitutional Court. That means the bill is far from being done and dusted.

Even if the constitutional challenge eventually fails, public antagonism will not automatically cease.

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Politically, Widodo’s governance may continue to face a wave of public criticism, not just about the controversial omnibus bill but also other critical related matters such as corruption and human rights. There seems to be a lack of understanding that corruption is truly a violation of human rights, and therefore it needs to be eradicated immediately.  

In Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province,  where over 55 percent of its inhabitants are Catholics, the problem of corruption is deeply concerning. The province is one of the most corrupt in Indonesia.

Indonesian Catholic newspaper Kompas published an article dated March 22, 2019, about the vice governor Josef Nae Soi’s commentary on corruption.

In it, he highlighted the irony that East Nusa Tenggara, as the third poorest province in Indonesia, is in fact the fourth most corrupt and is where most Catholics in the country live.

In Lembata regency, in particular, there is a corruption case under investigation in relation to a failed tourism project to build a floating swimming pool, restaurant and other facilities in the sea in Lewoleba Bay. It was the brainchild of the regent of Lembata, Yentji Sunur.

The project lacked public support from the start, mainly because there was minimal public consultation and no environmental permit.

Its expected completion was in December 2018 but was put back to 2019. There was no sign of work at the site. The project then ended up being scrapped, presumably not because of public opposition but due to the inability of the contractors to begin and complete the work.

It has been widely reported that 85 percent of the total funding for the project was wasted without any physical evidence of the facilities being built.

Evidence and allegations of corruption have been presented to the police since 2019. But the police investigation has been extremely slow, resulting in many questioning the resolve of the investigators in the matter.

Rumors have been circulated on social media about a mafia operating in the country and in East Nusa Tenggara in particular.

Apparently, the case has also been known to Indonesia’s commission of corruption eradication (KPK) since 2019, but it has shown no inclination to investigate the corruption allegations.

Some have asked whether Widodo is aware of the allegations since the president is regarded as a strong anti-corruption campaigner and would presumably put pressure on the commission and police to respond to the allegations.

For locals in East Nusa Tenggara, the issues of corruption and human rights are integral to the omnibus bill on job creation.

In this light, the application of the bill must be in accordance with Widodo’s commitment to eradicate corruption. This is critical as its eradication means support of human rights, particularly the traditional ownership rights of land including rivers, lakes and flora.

What happens if the omnibus bill lacks clarity in ensuring the absence of corruption?

In search of clarity and recognition

From the perspective of indigenous rights, several mass demonstrations held across Indonesia against the omnibus bill should be understood as a way to seek clarification and recognition as there seems to be a lack of clarity about the rights of indigenous communities.

When there is no clarity, there may also be no recognition of traditional rights. There is a fear that customary land ownership could be stolen by investors for tourism, hotels, housing, plantations, mining, among other things.

This fear can be eliminated by ongoing dialogue. Widodo once stressed the importance of communication. To him, the main reason for the protests against the bill was mainly due to miscommunication.

Widodo is partly right in saying so, but the issue is more substantial than just communication. It is also about what is written in the bill and whether what is written is completely clear?

This is why Widodo and his government need to review it to make certain that there is no ambiguity and traditional ownership rights are upheld.

The bill is currently haunting many Indonesians, particularly at the grassroots. It scares ordinary Indonesians as they struggle to understand the implications of the bill that seems to be lacking important details. The bill must prevent the exploitation of workers by big investors. There is a general feeling among Indonesian workers that they might be disadvantaged by the omnibus bill.

The government must listen to their concerns and address those concerns by providing clarity and recognition of their rights. Failure to do so would invite more protests.

This must be avoided. Historically, mass demonstrations in Indonesia tend to turn violent. Infrastructure has been damaged, people have been killed, arrested, tortured and put in jail. Others have simply disappeared.

The omnibus bill is about job creation, but what is equally important is that the rights of workers and communities aren’t being violated on the pretext of investment and development.

Justin Wejak studied philosophy in Indonesia, theology and anthropology in Australia, and currently teaches at the University of Melbourne. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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