Wayne Palmer – Work rights for non-citizens is a controversial issue for most – if not all – governments, and Indonesia is no exception.
Like other countries with large numbers of migrant workers overseas and a small population of non-citizens at home, Indonesia applies different standards when it comes to their work rights.
My research on foreign migrants in Indonesia suggests the government does little to help non-citizens trafficked into Indonesia for the purpose of labour exploitation. But what about other groups of migrants?
On the one hand, the government has relentlessly defended the rights of the 9 million or so Indonesian migrants working abroad. Indonesian workers have been exploited and abused in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, the government denies a wide range of non-citizens the right to make a living in Indonesia.
In 2020, the government permitted 98,761 foreign professionals to work in Indonesia. They make up only 0.07% of its labour force. Compared to other countries, the figure is small. In Singapore, for example, it was 35%.
In the same year, the Indonesian government issued 25,435 family-reunification visas for non-citizens. These visas allow them to join their spouses and parents who can either be Indonesian or non-citizens themselves. However, none of these visa holders was permitted to work.
When it comes to work rights for non-citizens in Indonesia, the focus is usually on limiting competition with local workers regardless of the non-citizens' reasons for being in the country.
How Indonesia limits work rights for non-citizens
Under Indonesian law, foreign professionals are permitted to work in specific jobs. Non-citizens with sought-after qualifications and work experience are employed as engineers, teachers and other specialists.
Legal requirements for their employment have changed over time. The 2021 Job Creation Law simplified the government's permission-granting process by cutting red tape.
However, trade unions and student groups have criticised the amendments for removing employment and environmental protections.
While hiring foreign professionals might be easier, the new law did not improve integration into rights protection systems.
For example, a temporary or permanent stay permit theoretically gives non-citizens access to the industrial relations system, which helps resolve disputes between employers and workers.
However, should their permits expire, there are no routine procedures for extending permission to remain in Indonesia so they can attend a mediation meeting at one of the government's Manpower Offices or a hearing at an Industrial Relations Court.
This handling contrasts starkly with Hong Kong, for example. There Indonesian domestic workers can apply for a visitor's visa that allows them to attend a wide range of appointments, including at the hospital or for police investigations, long after their residence permits have expired.
One of the sensitive issues related to foreign workers concerns Chinese workers who come along with Chinese investments in Indonesia. While some of them do not have employment visas, some do. The law should protect them.
During the pandemic, however, some public authorities and the general public still question their right to work in Indonesia, especially as Indonesians lose jobs amid the economic downturn.
Problems with working status of spouses
Foreign professionals are not the only group of non-citizens whose work rights are not adequately protected. As mentioned above, they also include non-citizens who marry Indonesians.
When they first enter Indonesia on a temporary stay permit, they are not allowed to work for an Indonesia-based employer. This condition is typical in a large range of countries.
However, these permit-holders are permitted to "do business" for the purpose of supporting their family. This usually entails work they can do at home like translating and editing work.
After two years of marriage, foreign spouses can convert their temporary permit to "permanent" residence. This permit is valid for five years but can be extended an unlimited number of times.
Even for permanent residents to gain conventional employment, employers must first obtain a work permit for employing a non-citizen. Employers must pay the government monthly compensation of US$100. They must also appoint an Indonesian employee to obtain the necessary qualifications and work experience that would remove the need for hiring a non-citizen for that job.
In practice, these requirements mean foreign spouses who are permanent residents are treated no differently to foreign professionals who come to Indonesia for the explicit purpose of work.
Migrant support organisations
Indonesia has prominent non-governmental organisations that advocate better protection of Indonesian migrant workers in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
MigrantCare and the Indonesian Migrant Workers Union have been instrumental in lobbying the Indonesian government to do more to protect its citizens overseas. We often see their commentary in Indonesian media.
Organisations that advocate for migrant rights for non-citizens in Indonesia are less outspoken.
For example, Aliansi Pelangi Antar Bangsa is particularly active in advocating access to dual citizenship for Indonesian-foreigner parents and their children.
Under the current law, only the children are permitted to hold the citizenships of both their parents until the age of 18. Then they must choose. Dual citizenship is not an option for the parents.
More rarely, and often behind the scenes, these organisations advocate for policy innovation that will improve the quantity and quality of rights for non-citizens who live and work in Indonesia.
In some cases, better-resourced international organisations like the International Organization for Migration, rather than migrant support groups, do the co-ordination and other legwork necessary to ensure the Indonesian government's various ministries, agencies and offices protect non-citizens from exploitation and abuse in Indonesia.
A way forward
At the implementation level, Indonesia needs a cross-sectoral taskforce so the government's various agencies can internally co-ordinate and apply Indonesian law to protect existing legal rights for non-citizens in Indonesia to the best extent possible.
A taskforce focused on the protection needs of Indonesian migrant workers provides a precedent. The government upgraded this taskforce to a fully funded agency in 2006. At the very least, the taskforce would include representatives from Indonesian ministries in charge of labour and immigration policy.
Without this reform, the diverse group of non-citizens living and working in Indonesia will continue to struggle for limited legal rights.
[Wayne Palmer Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter, Bielefeld University.]