Updated at 11:26 p.m. ET on 2020-10-09
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo defended his government Friday against criticism of a newly passed jobs creation law, saying that this week’s nationwide street protests over it were fueled by “disinformation” on social media.
In his first public comments after three days of protests broke out on Tuesday and later disintegrated into violence with vandalism reported in Jakarta, the president insisted that labor rights would be protected under the legislation and its opponents could challenge it in the Constitutional Court. According to critics, which include workers’ unions, the law undermines labor rights and threatens the environment.
The new law will speed up the country’s economic transformation and add nearly 3 million jobs a year to Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Jokowi said.
“What I see is the demonstrations against the Job Creation Law were basically caused by disinformation about the substance of this law and hoaxes on social media,” the Indonesian leader said during an online press conference.
Contrary to what critics of the law were saying, there would be no change to wage structures under the new law and various types of leave would still be guaranteed, Jokowi said, citing these as examples of disinformation about the new law. The president also denied critics’ claims that the law would allow employers to fire employers arbitrarily, and said that companies would still be required to conduct environmental impact studies for their projects.
His government was open for dialogue about the law while regulations were being drafted to implement the law, Jokowi added.
“The government is inviting input from the public,” he said.
Late Friday, Nahdlatul Ulama, one of the country’s largest Muslim organizations, and KSPI, a labor group that helped spearhead the protests, both announced that they would lodge petitions against the law with the Constitutional Court.
Since first taking office in 2014 and being reelected last year, Jokowi has faced pressure and criticism for not doing enough to improve the economy of the world’s fourth most populous nation.
The protests were over by Friday, but nearly 4,000 people were arrested Thursday in Jakarta and other cities after the demonstrations turned violent, officials said.
In Jakarta on Thursday, protesters torched bus stops and police posts after security personnel fired tear gas and sprayed water cannon to disperse them.
Meanwhile a local NGO, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), reported that large numbers of people who took part in the demonstrations across the country had not been accounted for.
“Hundreds of people are still missing and many others are still being detained by the police,” Fatia Maulidiyanti, the group’s coordinator, told BenarNews on Friday.
Fatia said police had also restricted access to the detainees.
"Even their families find it difficult to meet them," she said.
National police spokesman Argo Yuwono said 3,862 protesters had been arrested in Jakarta, South Sulawesi, North Sumatra and Central Kalimantan for allegedly taking part in rioting.
Argo said police were still questioning them.
“If there are minors among them, we will summon their parents so that they are aware of what their children have done,” Argo said Friday.
Protestors were demanding that the government repeal the law, which was passed by Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) on Monday.
The so-called omnibus law introduces sweeping changes to 79 pieces of existing legislation, including on labor, taxation and investment.
Union leaders have questioned the law, saying it cuts protections for low-income workers and relaxes environmental standards imposed on businesses. They said the law allows employers to pay lower wages, fire workers more easily and hire others on short-term contracts without providing benefits.
More than 3.7 million Indonesians have lost their jobs due to ripple effects of the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the number of unemployed people in Indonesia to 10.6 million, according to the Manpower Ministry. A World Bank report released late last month warned that Indonesia’s economy could shrink by 2 percent this year as it struggled to contain the pandemic.
Asfinawati, director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI), questioned the police's claims that those arrested were anarchists who engaged in rioting.
“The term anarchist is not clear. On what basis are they labeled as such?” Asfinawati told BenarNews.
Asfinawati accused the police of being politicized after national police chief Idham Aziz ordered his subordinates to counter arguments against the law in a secret memo to police departments, which was leaked to the media and has since been confirmed by the force.
KontraS said security personnel had used heavy-handed tactics in dealing with the protests.
“Police didn’t just fire shots into the air, but also fired directly at crowds,” KontraS coordinator Fatia said.
Meanwhile, Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan said that vandalism during Thursday’s protest in the capital cost the city an estimated 55 billion rupiah (U.S. $3.7 million).
Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud MD warned that authorities would not tolerate vandalism.
“These are criminal acts that must be stopped,” Mahfud MD said late Thursday.
“The government will take stern action and prosecute the perpetrators and those behind such anarchic actions,” he said.
This updated version adds more information from the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS).