By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and M. Habib Pashya
The recent arrival of 20 Chinese nationals with no entry permits to Indonesia’s South Sulawesi region to work on a China-funded smelter project has stirred resentment given tightening Covid-restricted public movement, generating larger questions over the numbers of Chinese in the country taking jobs from Indonesians.
The issue of Chinese workers taking jobs in Chinese projects that Indonesians could do has repeatedly percolated up to the highest government levels, occasionally stirring violence (above). President Joko Widodo told reporters last year that only 23,000 are officially in the country, an assertion met with public incredulity. Critics say the figure is at least twice that.
More than 1,000 Chinese-owned companies are operating in Indonesia, according to Leo Suryadinata, a Visiting Fellow at the Singapore-based thinktank ISEAS-Yusuf Ishak Institute, in a 2020 report. It is uncertain, for instance, how many total Chinese workers are in those companies.
The figure has been growing sharply as the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative investment expands in Indonesia. Chinese projects dominate the investment market, with China becoming the country’s second largest investor after Japan and its main trading partner, spurring calls for Chinese companies to provide training to local workers to work on Chinese projects.
The controversy over the entry of the workers has grown because of Indonesia’s implementation of a partial lockdown, known as PPKM policy, to mitigate the out-of-control Covid-19 pandemic, with cases growing at a weekly clip of 24 percent. Total deaths have topped 77,000 with cases now numbering almost 3 million across the country, a figure believed to be vastly under-reported.
Asked for clarification, Shi Ziming, the counselor from the Chinese Embassy to Indonesia, stated that “As we know, currently the Indonesian government is still allowing foreign nationals to enter Indonesia and has not suspended international flights or the issuance of visas due to the spike in cases. Covid-19.”
All employees of Chinese nationals allowed to enter the country “already have a valid visa, a negative PCR test result certificate, and a complete Covid vaccine card,” Shi said, “and have undergone the required isolation […] This is in full compliance with the latest Indonesian government regulations related to the travel of foreign nationals to Indonesia.”
The arrival of the 20 foreign workers was to accelerate the construction project of the smelter plant, PT Huadi Nickel Alloy, which will begin operation by the end of the year, Shi said. China imports vast amounts of nickel alloy, which is used to make stainless steel, chrome and other products.
Critics say that nonetheless, their arrival actually invites questions about the government’s seriousness in dealing with the pandemic, arguing that the partial lockdown policy wasn’t fully implemented effectively for foreign workers in suppressing the number of Covid-19.
Iwan Risdianto, Stakeholder Relations Manager for Angkasa Pura I, a state-Owned Enterprise that provides air traffic services and business airports, said the Chinese workers are under strict supervision for health protocols and the government is ensuring that there are no violations or the spread of the Covid-19 virus.”
Although there is no IMTA (Permit to Employ Foreign Workers), South Sulawesi Governor Andi Sudirman Sulaiman said he also supports their entry: “We have ordered the Head of the South Sulawesi Provincial Manpower Office to coordinate with the Immigration Office to go down to Bantaeng. Check the companies and foreign workers who come, including the licensing requirements from the agency from the central government for follow-up according to the provisions,” he said.
Alexander K. Ginting, the Head of the Health Handling Task Force (Satgas) Covid-19, said permitting the entry of Chinese workers is in accordance with a presidential regulation dealing with national strategic projects, and that the project is already undergoing health protocols. He also said the government is encouraging accelerated investment in South Sulawesi.
Nonetheless, “People see deepening divisions among the people,” said Salim Haji Said, a professor of Political Science at Indonesian Defense University. “So there is a message that it is difficult for us to go anywhere because of covid but (foreign workers) can enter Indonesia easily. It causes unrest in the community and I don’t think this is good for the government.” The president, he said, “has a lot of spokespersons so it’s best to explain. What exactly happened when many Indonesians are unemployed.”
What to do?
Growing numbers of critics, angered by what is regarded as disastrous policies in handling the coronavirus, are demanding that the government take a firm stance, saying lockdown policies will be in vain if they aren’t consistent.
Luhut Bansar Panjairan, the Minister of Investment and Maritime Affairs as well as the head of the agency combating the coronavirus, admitted in a public apology that “I ask that we understand that this delta variant is a variant that cannot be controlled. Seeing the development of Covid-19 in Indonesia which continues to increase, the government must take wise steps.”
Indonesia, the critics say, must follow the example of Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Europe, and Hong Kong in closing international flights, refusing entry to those with the potential to transmit new variants. There are widespread calls to strengthen cooperation between the center and the regions.
While the issue of foreign workers is already in accordance with presidential regulation, there are concerns that investment is not everything compared to public health. The government is being called upon to negotiate with Beijing government regarding projects being carried out in the midst of a pandemic.