The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Indonesian workers hard. Recent government estimates suggest nearly 2 million workers have lost their jobs or been stood down since the beginning of the crisis. Freelancers are particularly vulnerable and usually miss out on government protections.
In this era of platform capitalism, exploitation of freelance employment and temporary working relationships is increasing. While freelancing can increase flexibility, the insecurity of working relationships can push workers to submit to unfair working arrangements, a process that has been called ‘flexploitation’.
Freelance workers in the creative industry are already vulnerable. In 2017, there were 17.4 million workers in the creative sector in Indonesia. About half of them are employed on an informal or freelance basis. Creative industry workers tend to work longer hours and receive lower wages. Most creative industry freelancers are required to work on a piece-wage (or output-based) system, meaning that they put in more hours.
Discourses of “passion” and “entrepreneurship” in the creative sector exacerbate the exploitation of freelancers. Corporate firms use slogans like “do what you love, love what you do” while ignoring freelancers’ rights as workers, encouraging them to work long hours with little to no remuneration. Overworking is even hailed as a virtue. Recall the story of copywriter Mita Diran, who died in 2013 after working for more than 30 hours straight.
Likewise, the “entrepreneurship” ethos obscures the working relationship between the employer and its employees. Employees are seen as ‘partners’ rather than workers, reducing the employer’s responsibility to ensure their employees’ rights are fulfilled.
A survey conducted by the Media and Creative Industry Workers’ Union for Democracy (Sindikasi) in 2019, for example, found that freelancers had fewer breaks as they consistently worked more than standard work hours. Most respondents did not sign clear employment contracts or working agreements that would have guaranteed their employment status and rights as workers. Many also had difficulties in organising themselves thanks to their atomisation as workers.
These conditions have made freelance workers particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
In March and April 2020, Sindikasi conducted another survey to examine the impacts of Covid-19 and the associated economic slowdown to creative industry workers. Of the 139 respondents, 79% were freelancers, slightly higher than the average for the sector. Many freelance workers reported having jobs or contracts cancelled, especially those that required them to meet clients directly.
Workers in the film, video and audio sector (17.3%), performing arts (10.8%), and photography (9.4%) reported the most job cancellations. Workers in these sectors need to meet directly with their clients – many tasks simply cannot be completed from home. For example, while some artists can still perform concerts digitally, stage technicians have lost all their work.
The idea that freelance workers have more flexibility and adaptability doesn’t hold up during a pandemic. The survey found about half of those surveyed expected to lose between Rp 5 and 30 million between March and July 2020 thanks to job cancellations. Further, the survey also found that even without cancellations, many (27.7%) expected to receive just Rp 200,000 to Rp 1 million per month, well below the minimum wage.
For freelancers who lost their jobs, the overwhelming majority (87.8%) did not receive adequate compensation from employers. Many of them are breadwinners. They reported losing their savings, falling heavily in debt (to friends, relatives, and online loan sharks), and being forced to sell their personal belongings. Very few reported trying to access assistance from the government, although this may be because of lack of awareness of their eligibility.
These conditions are exacerbated by the Indonesian government’s failure to grasp the seriousness of the situation. The Jokowi administration has shown little interest in protecting freelancers. Despite the job losses caused by the pandemic, the government has not issued any policy to directly protect workers. Instead, the national legislature (DPR) and the government have recently pushed for the passage of the “omnibus bill” on job creation (RUU Cipta Kerja), which would abolish the basic rights of workers across a wide range of sectors.
In April 2020, the government did redirect its “pre-employment program” as part of its response to Covid-19. But the program is focused on online training programs and does not address the immediate needs of workers, let alone freelancers.
Freelancers will remain very vulnerable if no government intervention takes place. The fact that creative sector freelancers accept precarious working conditions does not mean they should submit to their fate.
Changing these conditions will require freelancers to acknowledge their position as part of the working class and their collective power – and to organise themselves. Despite its devastating impact on Indonesian freelancers, the coronavirus pandemic may yet provide the impetus for freelancers to organise and improve their working conditions.