Jakarta. A draft government regulation that will require foreigners to master the Indonesian language before they are able to obtain a work permit here has elicited incredulity and skepticism from members of the local expatriate community, who responded to the announcement with criticism.
Earlier this month, Manpower Minister M. Hanif Dhakiri revealed that soon foreign workers would have to complete the Test of Indonesian as a Foreign Language, which is currently being developed by the ministry along with the University of Indonesia’s Language Development Center.
The exam will be part of a new set of requirements that will determine the eligibility of a foreigner to work in the archipelago. It is included in the ongoing revision of a 2013 Manpower Ministry regulation.
“We hope that the revision can be complete in February so we can immediately implement the Indonesian language skill test for foreign workers who wish to work in Indonesia,” Hanif was quoted as saying by state-run Antara news agency.
He added the government would tighten regulations concerning expat workers in Indonesia and ensure their enforcement in order to protect the local workforce from an influx of foreign newcomers seeking their share of jobs in Southeast Asia’s largest economy.
Keith Whitchurch, an Australian national who has called Indonesia home for the past 10 years, said he understood the reasons behind the government’s move.
“It is entirely reasonable [...] entirely consistent with the international practice,” Whitchurch noted, citing the English proficiency certificates — such as TOEFL or IELTS — that citizens of non-English-speaking countries must obtain before they can secure a work permit in Australia.
He questioned, though, the case of expats who were currently working in Indonesia and had been for some time.
“The question is the arrangement. How does this apply to those who already have permits?” asked Whitchurch, who serves as president director of the Australian-owned mining services company SMG Consultants, whose local offices are located in South Jakarta.
“Will their work permits be revoked if they fail the test?”
He urged the government to offer a transitional period that would allow affected companies time to adjust before the rule was officially enforced.
But more importantly, Whitchurch emphasized, if the government was serious about implementing the new regulation, it should not do it halfheartedly; the Manpower Ministry must ensure that all companies comply, he said.
How the language test is implemented will seriously affect the already tight competition among businesses that employ a large number of foreign workers, Whitchurch added.
“We’re a foreign investment company operating in Indonesia. We’ve obtained our operating permit, we’re registered at the tax office, we have a mining service license, and everyone working here has work permits,” he said.
“If the language regulation will be applied, [SMG Consultants] will comply as well,” Whitchurch assured.
“But I can name you many companies — foreign and local — who break the laws every day. They break immigration laws, mining laws, business laws — but no one is prosecuted.”
Thus to ensure a level-playing field, the government must treat all those companies equally and make no exemptions, Whitchurch said.
“The thing is, the less compliant you are with the law, the more money you make. Companies that don’t comply with regulations will win, and those who are compliant are losers,” he said.
“So it’s OK to impose language requirement for a work permit. The government of any country can make whatever laws they want. That is sound. That is, as long as you apply [the regulations] equally to everyone.”
However, Peter (not his real name), a Dutchman who has been living in Indonesia for five years, was quick to slam the draft regulation.
Though he feels confident his Indonesian skills would allow him to easily pass the language test, thanks to his Indonesian wife, he questions the necessity of the regulation when many foreigners work in the country for a short period of time under a one- or two-year contract. He added Indonesian is not an easy language to learn to begin with.
"[The draft regulation] surprises me. I'm not sure what they want to achieve with this. It will be difficult for a lot of expats here," Peter said.
He also scrutinized the issue of technicalities as Indonesian language courses are not easily available in most countries, with the notable exceptions of Australia and the Netherlands.
Does this mean a foreign national seeking work in Indonesia must first take an Indonesian language class in Indonesia?
For that they must first obtain a socio-cultural visa and, if their real intention is to work here, then they will potentially break the laws, Peter pointed out.
“And that means you would have to be very interested in working here. I support that foreigners must learn Indonesian, but this regulation will create a lot of complexities for both the expats and the companies that hire them,” Peter said.
“[The regulation] is going to be very difficult to implement. If it will really be implemented, there will be an exodus of expats; probably 80 percent of them will have to leave the country — unless they just pay their way to get the work permits or find a loophole somewhere in the regulation.”
If the aim of the Indonesian government is to limit the number of foreign workers in the country in order to protect its own workforce, the language requirement is not really necessary, he added.
“[The new regulation] is too much because it’s already difficult [for companies] to hire foreigners — they are more expensive than local staff, and there are a lot of regulations that companies must comply with,” Peter said. “So companies that hire foreigners actually really need [the foreigners]. If locals can fill the positions, they will easily prefer locals."
According to data from the Manpower Ministry, as of October last year, a total of 64,604 foreign workers were registered in Indonesia, a decline from 68,957 in 2013 and 72,427 people in 2012.
The largest number of those workers come from China, amounting to 15,341 people, followed by Japan (10,183), South Korea (7,678), India (4,680), Malaysia (3,779) and the United States (2,497).