Job and pay fears add to COVID-19 concerns for students

Since Indonesia’s House of Representatives passed the so-called Omnibus bill into law this month, protests by workers and university students have spread around Indonesia, saying the law removes many benefits workers currently enjoy.

Final-year university students, already struggling to make up for lost classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic and an economic downturn that has forced mass layoffs by businesses, now face a situation of little investment and rising unemployment as they attempt to enter the workforce.

The 1,000-page Cipta Kerja bill, which means the jobs creation bill, amending almost 80 existing laws, passed on 5 October was seen as necessary by the government as the economy shrank by 5.32% in the second quarter this year. The government’s stated aim was to stimulate the economy and attract investment by relaxing business, labour and environmental laws and reducing and simplifying bureaucracy.

It has been opposed by labour unions and student unions over its effects on workers, including a reduction in the minimum wage and severance pay and that it allows for longer working hours, saying they will continue to protest until the Omnibus law is abrogated.

Poor outlook for new graduates

The government has said the Omnibus law will provide jobs for the unemployed and young people. But the outlook is not good for graduating students, already hit by pandemic restrictions.

Aina Hafidzah Salim (22), final-year student at the Indonesian Education University (UPI), said that, while throwing her support behind her fellow students demanding the abrogation of the new law, she is preparing for life after graduation.

“First, I should be mentally strong. Second, I should have plans B and C. And, after all, I should leave [my] old mindset behind, that one’s job should correspond with one’s educational background. I should be willing and able to work in any field,” she said.

Aina said she was considering starting her own fashion business. “This COVID stuff, social distancing, Omnibus law, has pushed me to become an independent woman.”

Fathul Barri Adnan (23), a final-year student at Bandung Islamic University, started his own fish-breeding business, which, he said, is running well while he is busy with final assignments from his university.

“I engage in various student discussions about what to do in this COVID pandemic and the Omnibus law. And we came to the common conclusion: try not to become job-seekers. Instead, be job creators,” Fathul said. “It is a big push for us to become a more independent generation.”

Students’ participation in protests

Earlier this month the ministry of education, culture and higher education issued a circular calling on students not to take part in the protests which turned violent in the past weeks. But students and workers protested this week in yellow, blue and green jackets to identify their universities.

A yellow jacket signifies the University of Indonesia. A blue jacket represents the Diponegoro University (Undip), Airlangga University, Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB), Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), and Padjadjaran University.

A green jacket identifies students of the State Islamic University (UIN), Andalas University, the State University of Jakarta (UNJ) and Muhammadiyah University.

Hundreds of students from Indonesia’s Association of University Student Executive Bodies (BEM SI), which groups some 26 universities, joined protests in Jakarta this week and last week despite the government’s warning.

BEM SI coordinator for Greater Jakarta and Banten, Bagas Maroupindra, said students objected to the ministry’s circular on 9 October not to take part in the protests. “We see it as an attempt to silence the students’ movement,” he said.

“The ministry’s call also ignores the people’s voice and aspiration, which should have been the foundation for decision-making,” he said, adding that the new law leads to “power centralisation which goes against the spirit of reformation”.

The protests come a year after similar protests by students and others over attempts to introduce other laws, including the hollowing out of Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission – many of those laws were included in the Omnibus law.

An earlier draft of the bill included provisions to allow profit-making providers into the education sector was withdrawn, as were draft provisions that foreign education institutions would be able to operate in Indonesia without cooperation with local entities. The laws on foreign branch campuses now remain unchanged.

But the government has said the law would encourage more applied research, enabling the commercialisation of research through greater participation of state-owned enterprises and regional institutions.

Final-year students struggle to complete the year

The ministry has already announced a raft of emergency measures for universities to help alleviate the financial burden on students during the pandemic, and particularly to keep students from dropping out of university. These include more flexibility with tuition fee payments.

As part of its efforts to help university students, the ministry has also called on university authorities not to give out ‘difficult assignments’. Final-year students have been given a one-semester extension by the ministry to give them more time to complete assignments.

The government has yet to decide when normal classes will resume as COVID-19 cases have risen during a second wave from early September. Education and Culture Minister Nadiem Makarim has only said: “Soon”.

But some face-to-face consultations are allowed, such as mentoring for theses and laboratory work.

The social-distancing policy on campuses is limiting student students as they approach the end of the final semester, when students should have completed all their courses and required assignments. Final-year students say their research is restricted as they cannot go to book stores or libraries. Food stalls around campuses are closed or open only for a few hours. It takes more effort to find food to eat, students say.

Many are unsure they will be able to graduate on schedule.

Aina said she has set herself the target of graduating by the end of this year, but as she is able to have only online meetings with her supervisor, she is not sure it is possible.

“I’m in consultation with my mentor for my thesis. And things were much easier with direct meetings,” she told University World News. “Now comes a new law that removes a number of workers’ rights, such as menstrual and maternity leave for female workers, permanent status of employees. It’s getting scary out there,” she said, adding: “I cannot lie to myself. I’m worried about my future.

“With online consultation, I can’t respond or ask questions spontaneously. And I can’t understand fully what my mentor presents in such limited time. Repeated connection cuts really bother us,” she added.

Yulia Sri Rezeki, a final-grade student of the Veteran National Development University (UPN Veteran), Jakarta, is struggling to obtain primary data for her undergraduate thesis, as she cannot go out into the field to collect data.

“I am researching how aerobic dance positively affects diabetes in members of the dancing community. I am supposed to see them dancing and talk to them, but I can’t,” Yulia said. The diabetes aerobic dance used to be regularly held in two hospitals in East Jakarta. But, since the social distancing policy, the dance has been stopped.

Via online interviews and questionnaires she found that many of the dance community members were too old to understand how the questionnaire forms should be filled in. “Video interviews are often interrupted by bad connections and questions have to be repeated again and again,” Yulia complained.

As of 22 October, Indonesia has had 377,541 COVID-19 cases, killing 12,959 people.