“There are no people in the world that want to open their doors to foreigners [in the way that we do],” said Prabowo Subianto, the Indonesian presidential hopeful, speaking to the Indonesian Trade Union Confederation (KSPI) on International Workers’ Day on May 1, 2018.
“The United States wants to make a wall to keep them out. In Australia people who try to enter are discharged to remote islands; in Malaysia, our own illegal migrant workers are whipped,” he continued.
Subianto, who is expected to run against Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in the 2019 election and who is known for his brash rhetoric, was referencing a new presidential regulation (Peraturan Presiden Nomor 20 Tahun 2018) that was signed last month and will make it easier for local companies to hire foreign workers. The regulation is meant to help boost foreign investment, but by addressing the issue of foreign workers in Indonesia so pointedly in his speech, Subianto has ensured that it becomes a political selling point in the race to the presidential palace.
Employment practices in Indonesia that apply to foreign workers are confused and confusing – and have been for years. In reality, foreigners working in Indonesia make up just 0.04 percent of the population. But despite the fact that a fraction of workers in Indonesia come from overseas, employing foreigners continues to be a topic that divides the nation, making it the perfect campaign issue in the lead up to election season.
Analysts agree that both potential candidates for the presidency are likely to exploit the topic of foreign workers in Indonesia. As Baiq Wardhani, a lecturer in International Relations at Universitas Airlangga, says, “The topic of foreign workers can be a hot issue for the 2019 campaign. Subianto clearly wants to attract more votes by using the issue and the negative reaction of many Indonesian people since Jokowi issued the presidential regulation.”
Politics lecturer at Fajar University, Kardina Karim Hamado, also points to the way Subianto unveiled his comments about foreign workers. “Subianto’s intention was purely about the presidential election, for two reasons – the timing of his speech and the framing.”
According to Hamado, the speech was deliberately timed to coincide with International Workers’ Day and elicit campaign support from the KSPI. Secondly, “Subianto deliberately framed it so that he is seen as someone who supports the local workforce in opposition to Jokowi who is known for being pro-foreign workers.”
Jokowi is widely believed to support foreign workers in Indonesia for a number of reasons. Under his administration the presidential regulation has been put in place to make it easier for foreigners to gain access to work permits and thus ease the process of gaining employment in the country. To add to this, the administration announced in April 2018 that foreign lecturers can now work as permanent lecturers at Indonesian universities, particularly those working the field of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. In January 2018, Muhammad Nasir, the Research, Technology and Higher Education Minister, also rolled out a new move to allow foreign universities to open campuses in Indonesia, while at great pains to silence any critics of the policy and demonstrate its strengths.
“Do not consider this as a new colonialism, it is not like that because the point is about collaboration,” he explained at a press conference in Jakarta.
Nevertheless, the scheme has seen some high profile critics, among them Indonesian parliament speaker Bambang Soesatyo, who called the move “a threat to the existence of our universities.”
This idea of foreign workers coming to Indonesia and taking jobs from locals is a tense one, in part due to unemployment rates in the country, which accounted for around 5.5 percent of the labor force in 2017, or 7 million people. In addition, 53 percent of the population is self-employed and 27.7 million people live in poverty in Indonesia, earning less than the official poverty line of $27 per month set by the Indonesian government. Given these figures, the idea of more foreign workers flooding the already saturated job market is something that many locals are keen to avoid.
Wardhani, however, points out that even with such issues, there is still an argument for the need for foreign workers in Indonesia. “Although the unemployment rate is still high, to some extent I agree that Indonesia needs foreign workers to increase its competitiveness with other countries.”
But Wardhani also says there is a flipside to employing foreign workers that worries the local labor force. In particular, “People are very concerned about massive numbers of Chinese workers entering Indonesia.”
Given the previous figures that only 0.04 percent of Indonesia’s population consists of foreign laborers, this fear appears unfounded. Still, xenophobia against Chinese nationals and Indonesians of Chinese descent is nothing new, following the anti-communist purges in the 1960s in Indonesia, which left thousands of ethnic Chinese dead, as well as the race riots that exploded across the country in 1998 and predominantly targeted Chinese businesses. The riots in 1998 were fueled, in part, by the belief that Chinese-Indonesians are more affluent, so the idea of Chinese nationals coming to Indonesia and “stealing” local jobs and resources is one that feeds into this well-documented xenophobia – and can be exploited by political candidates. But as an editorial in the Jakarta Post said in April 2018, the numbers just don’t add up:
Indonesian maids in Hong Kong alone were estimated at 160,000 and factory and construction workers in Taiwan at around 200,000, while there were only around 25,000 Chinese workers licensed to work in Indonesia. How could we possibly suspect that Chinese workers have invaded Indonesia?
To add to the confusion, in May 2018 the Manpower Ministry announced that it was bringing back plans to make learning Indonesian a requirement for foreign workers, a policy that was originally scrapped in 2015. At the time the move to abolish this requirement was heavily criticized by the Indonesian Workers’ Association, with IWA President Mirah Sumirat explaining that it would open the floodgates for foreign workers to seek employment.
For expatriates in Indonesia, the resurgence in political interest in this issue, and the new plans to make Indonesian language proficiency a requirement, is potentially worrying and perplexing. As one long term Indonesia-based expatriate, who asked to remain anonymous, says:
Indonesia is the fourth largest education system in the world, yet the results in science, math, and reading are consistently below OECD averages. If one assumes one of the primary purposes of allowing skilled labor is to encourage skills transfer into Indonesia, then adding a requirement of Indonesian language proficiency would be an ideal way to limit the importation of foreign skilled labor.
Bali-based British national Chris Wilkin, who worked in the oil business in Indonesia for years, says there are also issues with using foreign workers to bring transferable skills into the country if it is not managed properly internally. “Foreigners should be required to have local mentees who are being groomed for progression and to replace the mentor eventually,” he says. “I have to say I saw little effort made by the Manpower Ministry to enforce this in my time working in Indonesia.”
Considering the fact that the Manpower Ministry abolished the language requirement several years ago, it seems as if the proposed Indonesian language tests are nothing more than a move by Jokowi’s administration to appease critics who consider his pro-foreign workers stance to be detrimental to the local labor force and to soften the image of the new presidential regulation.
Given Subianto’s speech and the ever-changing regulations, it also seems that as the race for the presidency heats up, the issue of foreign labor in Indonesia will be consistently invoked on the campaign trail – and foreign workers will continue to find themselves potentially in the firing line as the politicking continues.
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food.