Much ado about something

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Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

IO – With workers on the streets en masse and the government finding itself in the crosshairs after passing the contentious omnibus bill, one must wonder how the two sides will come to an understanding, if ever.

Where the rest of us should stand in this contest of wills is no easy task–after all, both sides have good arguments to make.

Take the government’s point of view.  After years of losing out to our neighbors such as Vietnam in attracting foreign investment, it became obvious Indonesia needed to rewrite its onerous labor laws.  Overly generous severance pay and lack of flexibility in hiring policies made it too costly for investors, especially in labor intensive industries, to set up shop.  In economic downturns, companies in the garments and textiles industry, for example, can hardly afford large severance packages when survival means cutting costs until better days come around.

It is government’s duty to facilitate job creation.  Loosening of the labor laws is one way to accomplish this.  But how to convince workers of this in the midst of a pandemic and economic hardship?

If nothing else, the government can be faulted for not properly socializing the omnibus bill and how it could help the economy and hence make for more investment and jobs.  Labor unions, which tend to be overly protective of workers’ rights, should have been invited by lawmakers to become more involved in the drafting of the law.  Now that they have been handed a fait accompli, one can hardly blame them for organizing protestors.

One can also be critical about the timing of passing the bill.  Scores of people are out of work and find it difficult to make ends meet.  Because of lockdowns, poverty levels have skyrocketed, and stories of homeless people starving or even worse dying of hunger have become more commonplace.  Meanwhile the government has fallen short of its responsibility to ensure everybody who needs assistance receives it.  

Hence the uproar.  Common people wouid be more willing to accept changes to the labor laws if they knew lawmakers were watching their backs during the pandemic.  Labor union leaders would have been less combative if they were led to understand the tradeoffs in adjusting the laws and how other countries have benefitted from similar policies.

Getting people off the streets now will be problematic.  Security forces should exercise maximum restraint.  Using force will only inflame the situation and risk political turbulence.  Lawmakers should invite labor union leaders to the table.  Most importantly, the government must find immediate solutions to improve its social assistance programs.  If not, larger problems will surely come.