Chinese Overseas Workers in Indonesia

This week’s issue of Tempo features several stories on Chinese laborers in Indonesia. The cover is as evocative as it gets:

“Welcome, Chinese Laborers,” the title reads.

Under the headline “A Flood of Workers from the Panda Country”* [= Banjir Pekerja Dari Negeri Panda], we find a description of some of these workers. I am certainly not alone in finding the headline to be unnecessarily inflammatory and provocative. A flood? Hardly. But I do think that the details about how labor migration from China to Indonesia works are very interesting. Given that there are strict regulations on foreign labor in Indonesia to prohibit labor market competition, and given that most of the laborers described in that article are low-skilled manual laborers and machinists, how are these workers getting the permits they need?

Well, one way is to take advantage of bureaucratic “weaknesses” [= kelemahan].

Seorang kuli asing bisa mengantongi izin karena memanfaatkan “kelemahan” pejabat di bagian pelayanan perizinan.

Pejabat bagian pelayanan tidak ketat menerapkan syarat: satu pekerja asing harus didampingi satu tenaga lokal. Dalam prosedur, dokumen biodata pekerja lokal harus dilampirkan bersamaan dengan biodata si tenaga asing.

Seorang calo bercerita, biodata tenaga lokal pendamping hanya formalitas. Ia selalu meminta “klien”-nya menyerahkan biodata karyawan yang disebut sebagai tenaga pendamping. Ia meyakinkan, perusahaan tidak perlu khawatir karena pejabat Kementerian Ketenagakerjaan jarang mengecek keabsahannya. “Kalau ada pengecekan, ya, pura-pura sebagai tenaga pendamping,” katanya.

A foreign laborer** can get a permit because of the “weakness” of the officials in the permit services division.

Officials there do not closely follow regulations: a foreign worker must be paired with a local worker. Following the procedures, the biodata of the local worker has to be submitted together with the biodata of the foreign worker.

But a fixer explained that the biodata of the local counterpart is just a formality. He always instructs his “clients” to submit the biodata of an employee who is deemed the counterpart. He assures them that the company does not need to worry because the officials of the Ministry of Manpower rarely investigate the validity of the data. “If they check, well, they pretend to be the counterpart,” he said.

So, just fill out dummy forms. Or you can bribe an official.

Salah satu calo memungut Rp 8,5 juta untuk mengurus izin satu orang tenaga kerja asing. Ia menjamin, dengan tarif itu, perusahaan sponsor memperoleh izin mempekerjakan tenaga asing (IMTA) dan kartu izin tinggal terbatas (kitas).

One fixer estimated a price of approximatedly US$ 640 to arrange a permit for one foreign worker. He maintained that at this price, the sponsoring company would receive both a work permit (IMTA) and a limited-stay residency permit (KITAS).

OK, so those are the details. What is the motivation, though? Given that Indonesia is a labor-rich country itself, with a good deal of labor market slack, why would a Chinese firm operating in Indonesia need to import low-skilled laborers from China? Well, according to one Indonesian manager, “etos kerjanya luar biasa” [= they have an extraordinary work ethic]. The other argument we find in the Tempo piece is that the machinery uses manuals that are printed in Mandarin.

I wonder about that. There has been a lot of press coverage of Chinese workers in Africa, and lately also about Chinese workers in Latin America (see this recent story about Ecuador). I wonder if the recent rise in Chinese labor exports to Indonesia is just following the same pattern, or if it’s something different.


* Describing countries by with reference to some stereotype is common in Indonesian. So “Panda Country” = China, Negeri Paman Sam [= Uncle Sam Country] is the U.S., Negeri Matahari Terbit [= Country of the Rising Sun] is Japan, Negeri Kanguru [= Kangaroo Country] is Australia, Negeri Beruang Merah [= Country of the Red Bear] is Russia, Negeri Matador is Spain. Some of these terms are more offensive than others.

** I love the use of the word kuli here. It shares the same root as—indeed, it is the same word as—coolie. The etymology of coolie is interesting in and of itself.