Jakarta. Several Indonesians currently studying in Taiwan have denied forced labor claims made in recent media reports that have strained relations between the two countries.
The reports, which surfaced in the Taiwanese media last week, quoted Ko Chih-en, a lawmaker for the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, who claimed that hundreds of Indonesian students enrolled in a college and internship program are being subjected to forced labor in local factories.
This prompted Indonesia to stop sending students to Taiwan under the program.
Arrmanatha Nasir, spokesman for the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement on Wednesday evening that the government was seeking an explanation from the Taiwanese authorities and that it had also called for a full investigation.
"The Indonesian Economic and Trade Office in Taipei has urged the local authorities to take all the necessary steps, in accordance with local regulations, to protect the wellbeing and safety of the students enrolled in the college and internship scheme," Arrmanatha said.
An investigation by Ko allegedly found that Indonesians students at six Taiwanese universities, including Hsing Wu University in New Taipei, are forced to work 10-hour shifts, four days per week. It also found that the students, most of whom are Muslim, are given meals containing pork.
The lawmaker's office in Taipei did not immediately return requests for comment.
However, more than 200 Indonesian students currently enrolled in the college and internship program at Hsing Wu University have signed a petition on Wednesday denying the allegations.
"The university has not subjected us to any kind of forced labor and we have never been served meals containing pork," the students said in the petition, a copy of which was obtained by the Jakarta Globe.
They also condemned several news outlets for reporting what they categorized as fake news.
Hsing Wu University has also issued an official statement in protest of the allegations, saying that recent coverage of the issue had damaged the reputation of the companies involved, which under the Taiwanese government's New Southbound Policy have been training students for free. The policy aims to enhance cooperation and exchanges between Taiwan and 18 countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and Australasia.
"The students have never been exploited," the university said in the statement.
It noted that students were not allowed to work more than 20 hours per week, in compliance with the country's existing labor and occupational health regulations.
According to foreign ministry data, there are about 6,000 Indonesians studying in Taiwan, with about 1,000 currently enrolled at eight Taiwanese universities under the college and internship program for 2017-2018.
The program was implemented in 2017 as part of the New Southbound Policy initiative, launched by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in September 2016.
The Taipei Economic and Trade Office in Jakarta reaffirmed on Thursday a commitment by its government to protect Indonesian students in the country.
"Taiwan always looks highly [to] Indonesian diaspora's welfare and rights in Taiwan; no matter they are students, migrant workers or spouse. So the related ministries or agencies won't let the problem happen if any," Kendra Chen, a Jakarta-based representative of the Taipei Economic and Trade Office, told the Globe via WhatsApp.
Nineteen-year-old Muhammad Iqbal, one of the Indonesian students enrolled at Hsing Wu University under the college and internship program, had nothing but praise for the scheme.
He told the Jakarta Globe via WhatsApp that the Indonesian Economic and Trade Office held a discussion with students on Thursday to verify the claims currently circulating in the media. He added that the program offered many benefits.
"The program gives us an internship experience in an international setting, networking opportunities, and financial independence … alumni of the program might also serve as a bridge between Indonesia and Taiwan in the future," Iqbal said.