Commentary: Racialized Labour Politics in Chinese companies in Indonesia
“Against Racialized Labour Politics: Chinese Capital and Conflict in Indonesia”, March 15, 2023
On Jan. 14, 2023, following a three-day strike organized by the National Workers Union of Indonesia (Serikat Pekerja Nasional, or SPN), a violent clash between Indonesian and Chinese workers took place in the facilities of PT Gunbuster Nickel Industry (GNI) in Morowali, Central Sulawesi. The tragic incident resulted in the death of an Indonesian and a Chinese worker.
[...]It demonstrates the further corrosion of labour power in Indonesia, as President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) continues to pass “job creation” laws that favour investors over workers.
However, the fact that PT GNI is owned by a Chinese company whose imported Chinese migrant workers played an ambivalent role in this incident reveals the difficulty of forging working class solidarity against racialized labour politics in the context of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Even if they were under slightly better conditions, Chinese workers at PT GNI laboured in an arduous environment and should have resonated with the Indonesian workers’ demands. Why then did they actively break up the strike actions?
[...] Li Qiang, the executive director of China Labor Watch, noted that GNI management framed the workers’ protest as an “anti-China move” and equipped the Chinese workers with steel batons to defend the facilities. [...]Chinese workers feared they would lose their jobs had they not fought against the Indonesians.
The language barrier and collision of national loyalty have undermined the potential for transnational solidarity between workers based on shared plight under exploitative working conditions. Such unevenness is further complicated by the longstanding association of the Chinese in Indonesia with capital. The destination of their wealth accumulation has always been seen as alien interests, from the Dutch during its colonial occupation to Chinese networks across Southeast Asia during the Suharto era. Though perhaps there’s much truth in this perception, it would be a mistake to allow these elite tycoons to monopolize the Chinese identity, while overlooking the underclass of Chinese labourers who helped create that wealth.
As Eli Friedman, a scholar of Chinese labour, has argued, labour activists should side with workers, instead of the nation-states that are happily married to transnational capital. The Chinese workers brought by the tides of BRI to Indonesia should not be viewed as agents of the Chinese state.