COVID-19: Red tape prevents laid-off, poor Indonesians from getting promised aid

JAKARTA: For days, Mawarni had been trying to apply for the government’s pre-employment card programme, which would allow her to get a benefit worth 3.5 million rupiah (US$215) over a four-month period.

“It is not a lot of money,” the 46-year-old mother of three told CNA. “It won’t be enough to put food on the table and pay my house rent.”

But with the COVID-19 outbreak forcing companies and businesses to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers in Jakarta, Mawarni – who like many Indonesians goes with one name – could use all the help she can get.

The programme was part of President Joko Widodo’s campaign promises when he was re-elected last year to stem unemployment. It was originally designed to provide training for recent graduates and the unemployed.

READ: Cooped up in small homes and lacking awareness, Jakarta’s urban poor find it tough amid partial lockdown

But the president, popularly known as Jokowi, shifted the programme’s focus on Mar 31, less than two weeks after it was launched, to aid those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

Since the programme was new, the government only started accepting applications on Apr 11 through a dedicated website.

A man wearing a face mask sleeps amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a densely pop

A man wearing a face mask sleeps amid the spread of COVID-19 at a densely populated area in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 1, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

This was bad news for Mawarni, a cook who was forced to take an unpaid leave when the restaurant where she worked closed its doors on Mar 24. She does not own a computer and her West Jakarta house has poor mobile data reception.

“I had to walk up to the main road to get good Internet on my phone,” she bemoaned, adding that due to her being “technologically challenged”, she had to take her 16-year-old daughter along to help her with the process.  

“I didn’t even have an email until now,” Mdm Mawarni said. “My daughter had to set up an email account for me because you need an email to register.”

The woman described her experience of trying to apply through the website as “frustrating”, adding that there were moments when she could not even open the website. 

Even though she could access the website, she could not made it past the sign up page because the activation link was never sent to her email. 

Chairs are seen at a restaurant closed temporarily amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19

Chairs are seen at a restaurant closed temporarily amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Sanur beach in Bali, Indonesia, March 29, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Nyimas Laula)

Mawarni said she was finally able to log in last Wednesday (Apr 15) and spent 30 minutes filling the form.

But even after spending so much time, effort and mobile data, it would likely take a while before she finally gets the cash aid promised.


The programme’s spokesman Panji Winanteya Ruky told CNBC Indonesia on Wednesday that his office would have to consult the Ministry of Manpower and the Ministry of Social Affairs to verify the applications.

“Applicants must pass the verification process and a competence test, where they will be judged based on their age, education level and other factors. We will then look at the data provided by the Ministry of Manpower and give priority to workers and businesses identified as being impacted by COVID-19,” he said.

READ: Jakarta’s low-wage workers hard hit by layoffs, forced unpaid leave  

“We will also check against the Ministry for Social Affairs database. We will prioritise those who haven’t received any social aid yet.”

The aid promised does not come solely in the form of cash handouts, according to the programme’s executive director Denni Purbasari in a press conference organised by the COVID-19 task force last Tuesday.

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jakarta, Indonesia

An Indonesian Red Cross personnel, wearing a protective suit, sprays disinfectant on a goalpost at a multipurpose sports court in a densely populated neighbourhood area, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jakarta, Indonesia, April 4, 2020. (Photo: Reuteres/Willy Kurniawan)

Purbasari said the programme was initially about providing skills and training to the unemployed, therefore 1 million rupiah of the 3.5 million rupiah pledged to each beneficiary would come in the form of online courses and classes.

“We have over 900 online classes available. With each class costing 200,000 rupiah, beneficiaries get to take five classes,” she said.

“After completing the courses, then we will start disbursing 600,000 rupiah every month for four months to a beneficiary’s bank account or (digital wallet apps) OVO or GoPay.”  


Jokowi said on Mar 31 that the government would use three different existing programmes to aid people whose income are affected by the pandemic.

Aside from the pre-employment card programme, there are also the family hope programme – designed to help 10 million underprivileged pregnant women, infants and disabled – and the basic necessities card programme – designed to help 20 million poor families with subsidised food and goods.

READ: Indonesia’s economic stimulus not enough to stop layoffs, focus should be to contain COVID-19: Experts

However, Jokowi appeared to be banking on the newly rolled-out pre-employment card programme as his main tool to weather the economic impact COVID-19 had on millions of Indonesians.

He said the government has earmarked 20 trillion rupiah for the pre-employment card programme, adding that it would benefit 5.6 million people “primarily informal workers and micro and small businesses affected by COVID-19”.

Mannequins are pictured in the middle of a corridor at a closed shopping mall in Jakarta

Mannequins are pictured in the middle of a corridor at a closed shopping mall amid the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jakarta, Indonesia March 31, 2020. REUTERS/Fransiska Nangoy TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

But in practice, the programme is prioritising workers and businesses identified by the Ministry of Manpower which only keeps track of the formal sector, as explained by the programme’s persons in-charge earlier.

According to the Indonesian Statistics Agency, there are more than 55 million workers in the informal sector across the country.   

“Even before COVID-19, the government has been criticised for being slow to distribute their aid programmes and fail to ensure that the aid is distributed to the right people,” Bhima Yudhistira Adhinegara, an economist from the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance told CNA.

The decision to make the pre-employment card programme the go-to policy seems to be out of place, he said.

“The programme was designed to improve the skills of the unemployed at a time the economy was growing 5 per cent. During a time of crisis, people don’t need training, they need to eat,” he said.

The government also has to make sure the other two programmes can effectively mitigate the economic impact of COVID-19, Adhinegara added. 

The government has raised the number of beneficiaries for the family hope programme and the basic necessities card programme by 30 per cent. The amount of benefits for both was also increased by 25 per cent.

“The government has a lot of catching up to do in determining who these added beneficiaries are,” Adhinegara said. “ With limited budget, the government wants to be careful with the verification process but in so doing slows down the aid distribution.”

A man washes hands at a hand-washing station to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

A man washes hands at a hand-washing station to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, March 30, 2020, in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara FotoHendra Nurdiyansyaha/ via REUTERS

And the amount of benefits people stand to make are also relatively small, said Adhinegara. 

The family hope programme provides each beneficiary of between 2.4 million to 3 million rupiah a year, while the basic necessities card programme only hands out 1.8 million rupiah worth of goods over a maximum period of nine months.

According to the Jakarta Manpower Agency, as of last week more than 50,000 workers have been laid off and 270,000 more have been forced to take unpaid leave.


Siti Patonah, a housewife whose delivery worker husband has been forced to take unpaid leave, said she is unsure whether the government would help her family.  

In the eyes of the Jakarta Education Agency, her family is considered poor. Her nine-year-old daughter was allocated a cash aid of 250,000 rupiah a month to buy uniforms, books and stationery.   

But she does not know whether the agencies in-charge of the three programmes agree. “I don’t harbour much hope,” she said.

The government has also promised to provide free electricity to 24 million homes and relax loan requirements, debt collections and late payment penalties for motorcycle taxi riders and micro as well as small- and medium-size enterprises (SMEs).

Igun Wicaksono, chairman of the Indonesian motorcycle taxi rider association (GARDA), said in practice things were not as smooth.

“The free electricity is only for those who are already under the electricity subsidy programme, not for those who recently loss their income like us,” Wicaksono, whose income has dropped by 80 per cent because of the pandemic.

Gojek driver helmets are seen during Go-Food festival in Jakarta

Go-Jek driver helmets are seen during Go-Food festival in Jakarta, Oct 27, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta)

“We barely make enough money to feed ourselves and buy fuel. We can’t pay our motorcycle loan but the creditors insisted that we should at least pay half of our instalment despite the government saying we don’t have to.”

Meanwhile, state-owned oil company Pertamina has promised to provide a 50 per cent discount to all motorcycle taxi riders.

But Wicaksono said many of his peers were disappointed to discover later that the discount only applies to non-subsidised types of fuel which can cost one-and-a-half times more than the subsidised fuel.

READ: Jakarta’s e-hailing riders see sharp dip in earnings, fear infection amid COVID-19 pandemic

With Jakarta and its surrounding suburbs banning motorcycle taxi riders from taking passengers, life has been difficult for motorcycle taxi riders, who can now only make deliveries.

“And it will be more difficult. More and more laid off workers are now switching profession to become motorcycle taxi riders so competition will be stiffer,” he said.

“That’s why many of us have also applied for the cash aid programmes. But we are worried that there would be more bureaucracy before we finally receive cash. Meanwhile, we still have mouths to feed and bills to pay.”

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