The myth of lazy workers: invented by the Dutch, echoed by native rulers

Thrift would make you rich is increasingly outdated. However, if it is converted into Hard work would make you rich, there are many people in Indonesia who might believe it. Hard work is believed to be the key to a life with riches while lazy behavior perpetuates poverty.

There is a strong belief in Indonesia that one's success is determined through hard work and talent, not because of his social class.

This belief, which is called meritocracy, has been refuted by many studies.

These studies refute the notion of meritocracy by showing that the poor cannot escape poverty only by working hard. Economic hardship makes poor children limit access and opportunities to get proper education to health services.

However, no matter how much research has disproved it, the myth of meritocracy will last. At least, there are several explanations for why this myth is deeply rooted in Indonesian society.

First, the high interest in topics related to motivation, especially those that come from people who are considered successful or whose stories are inspirational.

There are hundreds of books on motivation written by both business people and professional motivators, which you can easily find in bookstores.

The misperception of economic inequality is the second explanation behind the persistence of the myth of meritocracy. This misperception is caused by the belief that there is equal opportunity promoted by the government.

If there is competition in the community, people with low incomes will fail to compete. This failure to compete will ultimately be seen as the fruit of laziness. Whereas, from the beginning, they lacked access and opportunities.

There is no evidence to support the claim that unemployed people automatically become lazy because they are given assistance. Furthermore, reflecting on the researches, such statements merely obscure economic inequality caused by structural problems.

Labor, especially blue-collar workers, are the ones who will be most disadvantaged by this myth of meritocracy. We can see how the perception of workers as a lazy social group is always echoed in the media every Labor Day or when large-scale labor actions emerge. The workers were accused of being lazy but always demanding a raise. Labor is also always blamed for low labor productivity in Indonesia.

Another narrative is consumerism among workers. Not to mention the news that only focuses on the riots, damage, or the pile of garbage left after the demonstration without giving the full context of the workers' demands. This cynical reporting has contributed to the stigma of laziness but demands a lot attached to workers.

The myth of meritocracy affects workers who often considered poor because they are lazy. To find out how this lazy myth came about, we must go back to the days of Dutch colonialism. In the book The Myth of the Lazy Native, sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas explains that toward the 19th century, especially after van den Bosch imposed a system of forced cultivation in 1830, the debate about Javanese society, which in this book is an example of indigenous people, between Dutch liberals and conservatives were getting hotter.

The imposition of the forced cultivation system required moral justification so that the natives were then imaged as lazy so that they could be forced to work. Governor-General van den Bosh even considered that intellectually native adults were the equivalent of Dutch children aged 12 or 13.

In his book, Syed Hussein Alatas also notes former Governor-General J. Siberg's refutation against van Hogendorp who proposed the elimination of forced labor, exploitation of agricultural products, and the application of free trade, which is in line with the liberal movement in Europe. Former Governor-General Siberg gave six reasons why land division and forced cultivation could not be eliminated. One of the reasons was, the natives were lazy and too slow so that through the forced cultivation system, they could be forced to work and generated more profit for the Dutch.

Indigenous workers caught in the forced cultivation system put up little resistance by slowing down their work. However, the indigenous rulers like the regents and other village officials who worked for the colonial government acted arbitrarily against their people on the basis of the same stigma.

The liberal group succeeded in abolishing the forced cultivation system after taking control of the Dutch parliament in 1870. In that same year, the liberal group issued the Agrarische Wet for a colony. This regulation gave the colonial government the authority to issue certificates of title to cultivated land. Lands that were not cultivated directly, including those whose ownership could not be proven, the customary, and those belonging to aristocrats that did not cooperate with the colonial government, would be taken over by the colonial government.

This law had the same role as the Inclosure Act in England. Government officials, village heads, local aristocrats, and their relatives benefited the most after the Agrarische Wet derivative regulation, which is the forest clearing ordinance, was passed. This ordinance gave them the authority to clear forests on abandoned land.

This regulation eventually caused many people to be expelled from their cultivated land. Those who were expelled were eventually employed as wage laborers in sugar cane plantations and factories.

Dutch conservatives and liberals had different views on the forced cultivation system. However, the presumption of lazy natives was still used but for different purposes. Conservatives used it to impose a system of forced cultivation while liberals to maintain low wages.

What happened when Indonesia tried to get out of the shadows of Dutch companies that controlled strategic industries?

Various attempts were made to get out of this trap, such as nationalizing the assets of Dutch companies in 1957 to the 1960 Agrarian Basics Act, in order to reduce inequality in land ownership due to the Agrarische Wet.

The conflict was inevitable. The climax occurred when Suharto took advantage of the escalating conflict to suppress the Indonesian Communist Party, which spearheaded the Dutch asset nationalization movement and the 1960 Agrarian Basics Act. Suharto also overthrew Sukarno who was previously allied with the PKI.

Under Suharto's rule, the state controlled the economy and suppressed the political power of the workers. The 342nd Ministerial Decree of 1986, for example, allowed employers not to pay wages for workers who struck. In fact, the involvement of the military to deal with labor issues was justified by this regulation. The New Order government also changed the term laborer to employee. The term laborer was only used to describe the construction and manufacturing workers.

Apart from the use of the military apparatus to reinforce Suharto's power, the 1973–1982 oil boom made the country's domination unrivaled. However, the country's dependence on oil revenues and businessmen who always depended on state assistance made the economy unstable after the price dropped dramatically.

The high deficit in the balance of payments opened doors for multilateral financial institutions, such as the IMF and the World Bank, to encourage the New Order government to deregulate and debureaucratize.

The dominance of multilateral financial institutions in Indonesia coincided with a shift in the global economic paradigm toward a free market or neoliberalism following the election of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan a year later.

Previously, countries in Latin America, such as Chile, had become laboratories for experimenting with neoliberalism policies, such as cutting social budgets and privatizing state enterprises after the overthrow of President Allende by fascist General Pinochet. The Chile experience later became the basis for the Washington Consensus, which was a policy agreement among the World Bank, IMF, and the Department of Treasury in 1990.

Labor flexibility, which was a central part of the Washington Consensus doctrine, must be followed by countries that had been in the grip of world financial institutions since 1974. The flexibility of the labor market in the neoliberal economic order was part of the politics of low wages. The application of labor flexibility in Indonesia is stipulated in the 13th Act of 2003 concerning manpower, which legitimizes the practice of contract work and outsourcing.

The adoption of a flexible labor market is bad for workers. Moreover, the main job as a laborer dominates the main employment field in Indonesia. The report on the condition of workers in Indonesia shows that in February 2020, the number has reached 52,198,878, much more than the agricultural sector of 4,906,783, and non-agricultural of 5,797,056.

One thing that must be considered in understanding employment is the labor market system and working conditions. In Indonesia, decent work conditions are still homework to be done. Meanwhile, the application of a flexible labor market system actually adds to the problem instead of increasing the welfare of workers. Flexible working systems make it easier for workers to lay off, more difficult to organize, and ultimately to demand improvements in conditions and wages.

Outsourced workers at the Jakarta International Container Terminal were fired unilaterally after staging a protest. Most of the outsourced workers had worked at the company for 20 years. They protested because their status was never promoted to permanent employment.

A similar story also occurs in Central Sulawesi. Since the implementation of the 13th Act of 2003 concerning manpower, many mining workers have been contracted for 6–9 months and have been repeatedly extended to exceed the limit specified in the applicable law.

Decent and safe working conditions in various companies are still questionable. For example, the case of work accidents repeatedly befalls PT Alpen Food Indonesia workers who produce Aice ice cream, or the cardboard processing company PT Buyung Putra Pangan does not provide insurance and also refuses to pay for a worker who lost the left arm while working.

The various problems above occurred before the passage of the Job Creation Law, which brought a stronger spirit of flexibility than the previous law.