Officials try to calm anger stoked by viral video of Chinese workers measuring land in Bekasi

Screenshots: Yayan Fitriana / Facebook
Screenshots: Yayan Fitriana / Facebook

To meet his goals of rapidly expanding the country’s infrastructure, President Joko Widodo has accepted a great deal of assistance from China to fund and develop numerous projects. But this has also stoked xenophobic conspiracies among some Indonesians that his administration is allowing millions of unskilled Chinese workers to enter the country and take work away from them.

Read: Premier Li says Chinese companies in Indonesia should prioritize hiring local workers during visit

A video featuring Chinese workers in the Jakarta satellite city of Bekasi recently went viral for seemingly justifying these sorts of fears.

The video, shot in Jatimulya village by the local neighborhood head (RT), shows him confronting the three foreign workers who are taking land measurements. The RT demands to know what they are doing there since he had not been notified of any such work being done.

The video quickly went viral and led to accusations that they were illegal and/or unskilled Chinese workers (apparently measuring land is not a real skill) as well as angry questions about what they were doing and why they were doing work that Indonesians could be doing.

Soon after, the Ministry of Manpower sought to calm anger over the video, first by confirming that the Chinese workers in the clip were in fact legal employees of Sinohydro Co, a contractor working with PT KCIC, the state-owned company in charge of the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railroad project that is being backed by China.

Manpower Minister M Hanif Dhakiri, speaking at a press conference in Jakarta yesterday, said that the companies had been investigated and the workers in the video were found to all have properly acquired work visas that identified them as specialized engineers (foreigners are not technically supposed to occupy jobs that could be done at the same performance level as locals).

Hanif admitted that while the Chinese workers were here legally, the problem was that they didn’t have a local co-worker there to explain the situation.

“Foreign workers should have local companions in accordance with the provisions. Well unfortunately in this case their companion was not able to provide an explanation to the local residents which caused suspicion and the impression that the foreign workers were rude or illegals,” Hanif said as quoted by Antara.

Hanif noted that the neighborhood in the video was also set to be demolished to make way for the high-speed railway project but that the local residents had yet to receive their compensation from the government, which made the idea that Chinese workers were working on the project even more sensitive. He regretted that the companies in charge of the project had not done more to inform the locals about their work and said they would be instructed not to allow such incidents to happen again in the future.

The issue of foreign workers and investment is likely to be a major point of contention in the 2019 presidential election as Jokowi’s challenger, Gerindra chairman Prabowo Subianto, is making economic nationalism a centerpiece of his campaign.  

The administration had to fend off accusations that it was opening the floodgates to foreign workers earlier this year after Jokowi issued a presidential decree that made it easier for businesses to apply for certain short-term work permits for foreigners. Officials pointed out that while the actual number of long-term foreign workers in Indonesia was 86,000, that figure was dwarfed by the country’s overall population of 261 million.

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