[lg policy] Nothing new about Indonesia’s foreign worker language regulations

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri Jul 20 09:05:17 EDT 2018

 Nothing new about Indonesia’s foreign worker language regulations 18 July

Author: Tommy Koh, UBC

Just two days after Indonesia’s recently held *Pilkada *(local elections
Presidential Regulation 20/2018 on the use of foreign workers in Indonesia
came into effect on 29 June 2018. With election results capturing the
attention of Indonesians and observers, it is likely that few noticed the
implementation of the decree, signed by Jokowi almost three months prior.
Yet there remain lingering concerns, especially among the business
community, about the impact of the regulation on foreign workers.

[image: Workers prepare reinforcing steel at a tunnel under construction
for the China-financed Jakarta-Bandung fast train, in Jakarta, Indonesia, 2
May 2018 (Photo: Antara Foto/Aprillio Akbar/ via Reuters).]

Much of the present fear stems from a recent *New York Times *article
analysing a provision in the regulation that allegedly orders foreign
workers to learn the Indonesian language. The clause of interest is a
single line in the regulation, buried in Article 26 of Chapter 3. Loosely
it states that employers of foreign workers are obliged to ‘facilitate
Indonesian language education and training to foreign workers’. But reading
this as a new development with substantial adverse effects is unnecessarily
alarmist and ignores the significant continuities in Indonesia’s policy
toward foreign workers.

Requiring foreign workers to learn Indonesian is not new. It has roots in
two regulations, neither of which have been actively enforced. The first is
a 2013 Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration regulation that requires
foreign workers to communicate in the Indonesian language. The second is a
government regulation from 2014 stipulating that foreign workers who do not
meet required language proficiency will be sent for language training. Put
simply, nothing has changed.

While it is possible that the new regulation represents a renewed
commitment by the Jokowi administration to impose a foreign worker language
requirement, this is unlikely for two reasons.

First, critical local economic stakeholders such as multi-national
corporations are disproportionately affected by the policy. These
stakeholders have the ability to impose significant economic repercussions
upon Indonesia if they feel they are being disadvantaged by local language

Second, Indonesia is a labour exporting country (especially in the care
sector) and remittances
from overseas workers contribute meaningfully to the Indonesian economy.
The possibility of other countries retaliating by subjecting Indonesian
foreign workers to the same language requirements will be both politically
and economically untenable.

These represent compelling reasons for the Jokowi administration to
continue avoiding the enforcement of foreign worker language requirements.

Identifying the new regulation as keeping with the status quo rather than
making a ground-breaking change allows us to discard several suggested
explanations for the inclusion of the language clause. The argument that
the language requirement is to crack down on the increasing numbers of
illegal Chinese labourers in Indonesia is not compelling. Not only would
these irregular and unregulated migrants not be subject to the new
provision if enforced, but subjecting legal Chinese migrants to stringent
language requirements is likely to push such migrants to illegal channels.
If illegal Chinese labourers are indeed the primary concern, the
availability of targeted policy tools (such as site checks) that are not a
blanket language requirement are likely to be more effective and less
politically costly.

So why was the provision included in the new presidential order? After all,
if a policy is not being enforced, why include the same wording again?

The popularity among Indonesians of symbolically subjecting foreign workers
to a local language requirement is crucial to understanding the language
clause. Even if the policy is not actively enforced, the clause’s existence
enables the Jokowi administration to point to it as evidence of the
government’s commitment to nationalism and prioritisation of Indonesian
culture and language. Amid concerns surrounding foreign investment, having
policy clauses that affirm the primacy of Indonesia provides the Jokowi
administration with legitimacy.

Perhaps the most important takeaway here relates to the stickiness of
policy wording. The continuity of an unenforced policy is less a response
to *existing *political opposition and more an effort to avoid the
*potential *political backlash of changing the policy. The nuance here
between inaction and action is noteworthy. The new regulation is not a
radical departure but merely the quiet continuation of existing policy that
seeks to balance domestic political priorities and continued economic
growth. If the current language of the regulation is a holdover rather than
an intentional shift in policy intent, repercussions are unlikely to be

It is easy to misinterpret the presidential regulation because of the gaps
that exist between policy wording, policy enforcement and policy intent.
Understanding previous regulations is both instructive and critical.

A comment obtained by the *New York Times *from the American Chamber of
Commerce in Indonesia highlighted a desire for ‘predictable rules’. The
Jokowi administration’s language clause in the new regulation is nothing
but predictable. There is little reason to read the inclusion of the
language clause as a radical change. Business as usual can continue.

*Tommy KS Koh is a Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs candidate at
the University of British Columbia (UBC) and a Graduate Student Researcher
at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.*


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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