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Jakarta Post

Renewed mistrust of foreign labor tests Indonesia-China relations

  • Ruslan Sangadji and Dian Septiari

    The Jakarta Post

Palu/Jakarta   /   Thu, April 23, 2020   /   07:24 pm
Renewed mistrust of foreign labor tests Indonesia-China relations Blocked: In this file photo, a nickel processing facility belonging to PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry (VDNI) in Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi is seen in operation. The neighboring Central Sulawesi administration recently refused entry to 10 Chinese workers from PT VDNI at the provincial border over fears of COVID-19 transmission. (Courtesy of PT vdni/-)

Local governments have shown a lack of trust in Chinese workers employed in numerous projects throughout the country, potentially signaling a flashpoint in Indonesia-China relations and dampening milestone diplomatic celebrations this year.

Recently, Central Sulawesi Governor Longki Djanggola ordered 10 Chinese workers to return to their camp in Kendari, in neighboring Southeast Sulawesi, after they were stopped on their way to a work site in North Morowali regency.

The workers were expecting to repair smelters belonging to PT Gunbuster Nickel Industries (GNI), a subsidiary of PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry, the Chinese-backed mining company that employs them. They were reportedly the only people with the expertise to make the repairs.

Read also: Activists, politicians urge protection of Chinese mistreated over coronavirus

The workers were briefly detained last week at a COVID-19 monitoring post at the border between the provinces of Southeast and Central Sulawesi, despite having lived in Kendari for a long time.

Longki said it was important to tighten surveillance of foreigners to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the region.

The governor argued that there was a legal basis for preventing the Chinese nationals from entering his province founded on a Manpower Ministry circular on foreign workers and other efforts to curb the spread of the disease.

Longki said that companies had to provide the necessary paperwork and inform local authorities before sending foreign workers on work-related trips.

In the meantime, he said, the 10 workers would be monitored by local agencies from the immigration, health and manpower sectors.

"You cannot just bring in foreign workers without coordination, so I asked that they immediately be returned to Kendari,” he told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

The presence, activities and health of foreign workers had to be supervised by the government, the governor said, even if the workers were carrying out activities on behalf of their firms.

The COVID-19 epidemic has elicited increased suspicion of foreign workers in Indonesia, particularly those from China, where the virus that causes the disease is believed to have originated – although some studies cast doubt on this assumption.

Read also: How to communicate COVID-19 risk without fuelling anti-Chinese sentiment in Indonesia

As of Thursday, there were 7,775 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, 37 of which were reported in Southeast Sulawesi and 29 of which were reported in Central Sulawesi.

Three people have died in Central Sulawesi, including the late North Morowali regent Aptripel Tumimomor, who tested positive for the disease posthumously earlier this month.

First responders: Officials respond to a helicopter crash inside an industrial park in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, on Friday. The helicopter was carrying six Chinese nationals.First responders: Officials respond to a helicopter crash inside an industrial park in Morowali, Central Sulawesi, on Friday. The helicopter was carrying six Chinese nationals. (Courtesy of/The National Disaster and Mitigation Agency )

Other regions have also shown a tendency to discriminate against Chinese workers.

Late last month, 39 Chinese workers arriving in Bintan in the Riau Islands province were refused entry. Authorities argued that the workers’ employer, the aluminum producer PT Bintan Alumina Indonesia based in the Galang Batang special economic zone (KEK), did not have a permit to employ foreign workers, kompas.com reported.

A Chinese worker was refused entry to West Kalimantan despite having obtained a medical certificate. He was deported just days after his arrival, which sparked public protest amid COVID-19 fears.

Asmuni, a spokesman for the Pontianak Imigration Agency, said he was under strict orders from the regional administration head to deport the person in question.

“While he did produce a medical certificate, we still don’t know the actual conditions in his home country. It is better to be sent home than to be allowed in and end up making a fuss,” he told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

The Pontianak administration rejected the worker on March 27, well before the central government announced it would temporarily ban foreigners from entering Indonesia.

The ban, which was formalized under Law and Human Rights Ministry Regulation No. 11/2020, came into effect on April 3.

“Based on our observations since the ban, there is no foreign traffic to or from West Kalimantan at this time," Asmuni said.

Throughout Indonesia, 239 foreigners have been denied entry between Feb. 6 and April 19, according to data from the Law and Human Rights Ministry’s Directorate for Immigration.

From the official records, 89 of those denied entry were from China, 15 from Malaysia and 12 from Russia.

The Chinese Embassy in Jakarta was not immediately available for comment.

Anti-Chinese sentiment has been a growing problem in Southeast Asia – even before the COVID-19 outbreak – as Beijing’s influence and presence in the region has increased.

Foreign direct investment from China, Indonesia’s second-largest foreign investor, almost doubled last year to US$4.7 billion from $2.4 billion in 2018, according to data from the Investment Coordinating Board (BKPM).

Meanwhile, many Indonesians of Chinese descent still have deep-seated fears of a mass reprisal against their minority group, owing to the country’s history of anti-communist violence, which was often directed at racial minorities.

Read also: Chinese-Indonesians feel like outsiders amid persisting racist sentiment

The recently growing sentiment has aggravated underlying grievances caused by the fear that Chinese investments will further marginalize local communities, said Dewi Fortuna Anwar from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

“The general perception of China in Indonesia is very mixed,” the international relations research professor said.

“There’s always distrust based on history, politics and the social makeup of the two countries, as well as ethnicity. It’s complex, and the issue of Chinese workers has been here for a few years following increased investment [from] China.”

The Morowali Industrial Park in Central Sulawesi, which turned Indonesia into the world’s second-largest exporter of stainless steel in just five years, has been mired in rumors of an influx in foreign workers. The rumors have exacerbated anti-Chinese sentiment, but the government has brushed them aside as an exaggeration.

Unlike projects from Europe or Japan that employ a few foreign experts and arrange transfers of technology, Dewi said that Chinese investment was mostly bundled with workers from China.

“This has resulted in resentment at the local level because [of the lack of] added value to the local economy,” she said. 

“There are existing concerns that foreign workers will take opportunities away from locals, and they are often exclusive in nature, which prompts racist responses.”

But all of that should go away with the significantly reduced mobility everywhere, not just among Chinese people, she noted.

Indonesia and China will celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations this year.

– Severianus Endi contributed to this story from Pontianak, West Kalimantan.

 

Editor's note: The main photo for this article has been replaced to better reflect the story's content.