The Platform


In Indonesia, ethnic diversity in the workplace can’t be overlooked.

In discussions about diversity and inclusion, it’s crucial to broaden the conversation beyond the typical focal points such as gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religious belief, and disability. Notably, in a nation as ethnically diverse as Indonesia—with its mosaic of over 1,300 ethnic and subethnic groups—the narrative surrounding workplace diversity should be as varied and vibrant as its cultural fabric. This archipelago’s demography offers a staggering array of ethnicities, from the Javanese and Sundanese to the Chinese and Balinese, each contributing unique hues to the national panorama. Given this richness, Indonesia is uniquely positioned to be a vanguard of ethnic diversity in professional settings.

The prevailing dialogues on workplace diversity tend to prioritize gender, striving to equilibrate the representation of men and women and to foster environments inclusive of non-binary identities—discussions that are just beginning to take root. Gender diversity is undeniably important, and while the journey towards true equality is ongoing, we are witnessing tangible progress. This is evidenced by the commendable efforts of numerous Indonesian employers to bolster women’s participation in the workforce, manifesting in increased initiatives to recruit female candidates.

Despite these advancements in gender diversity, the tapestry of ethnic variety in Indonesia’s professional sectors remains, regrettably, underappreciated. It’s time to shift our gaze and ensure that ethnic diversity is not merely an afterthought but a pivotal aspect of our inclusivity efforts.

While Indonesia adheres to various international conventions and enforces laws designed to balance the employment of foreign and local workers, there remains a notable dearth of specific regulations aimed at fostering ethnic diversity within the workplace. The need for affirmative action programs or other systematic approaches to cultivate such diversity is palpably unaddressed. Indonesian companies enjoy the liberty to shape their hiring policies, leading to pivotal decisions on whether the recruitment of Indonesian nationals suffices, or if a broader inclusion of ethnic backgrounds should be deliberated. However, this discussion is pertinent primarily in contexts where the job role in question does not intrinsically necessitate ethnic-related competencies, like specific language fluency or indigenous knowledge.

Fostering ethnic diversity in Indonesia’s workforce transcends the pursuit of equity across ethnic groups—it is an investment in the country’s socio-economic fabric. Studies consistently underscore the wide-ranging benefits of a workforce rich in ethnic backgrounds, such as enhanced creativity and innovation, as well as increased productivity, which collectively confer a substantial competitive advantage. However, despite these recognized merits, actualizing a truly ethnically diverse workplace landscape remains an intricate and formidable challenge within Indonesia’s dynamic socio-cultural context.

Indonesia’s challenge in achieving workplace ethnic diversity is inextricably linked to its geography. As an archipelago of over 17,000 islands, employment opportunities are unequally distributed, often concentrated in urbanized areas like Java, which boasts a more developed infrastructure. This geographical centralization of job markets creates inherent barriers for those in less developed regions, inadvertently privileging residents of Java and similar areas with greater economic opportunities and access to professional development.

This disparity is more than a matter of proximity; it feeds into broader socio-economic divides and perpetuates a cycle of unequal access to education and other resources. Consequently, there emerges a skills gap among the population, privileging certain ethnic groups — notably the Javanese — who enjoy a comparative head start in educational and professional arenas.

The ramifications of this divide are multifaceted, resulting in intergenerational challenges that entrench the marginalization of minorities. Ethnic groups from more remote or less developed islands are less represented in professional settings, not necessarily due to a lack of talent or ambition, but because of a complex web of socio-economic factors that skew opportunities in favor of their counterparts in more developed regions. Therefore, the promise of Indonesia’s rich diversity is not yet fully realized in its workforce, calling for targeted strategies to bridge these divides.

Unconscious biases stemming from perceptions of ethnic work cultures can significantly impact hiring practices, potentially stymieing the representation of certain groups within Indonesia’s workforce. These biases are informed by the distinct cultural values that are integral to the work ethics of different ethnicities, which are, in turn, shaped by their unique traditions and characteristics.

For instance, the Minangkabau are often lauded for their resourcefulness and creativity, while the Javanese are recognized for their methodical and thoughtful approach to work. Meanwhile, the Mandailing Batak ethnic group is often noted for their passionate and assertive demeanor. Such characteristics, while sometimes positive, can be double-edged, leading to prejudiced assumptions that may not align with individual capabilities or true cultural attributes.

These embedded stereotypes can distort the perception of an individual’s potential based on ethnic background, rather than on their actual qualifications or performance. This is not only unjust but counterproductive, as it undercuts the rich potential for a dynamic and diverse workforce. Eradicating these biases is imperative to ensure that workplace diversity can flourish, allowing for a truly representative and equitable professional landscape in Indonesia.

Company culture poses its own set of challenges to achieving ethnic diversity. While many firms advocate for meritocracy in their hiring processes, the reality can be marred by persistent biases and systemic barriers. Such obstacles may impede individuals from varied ethnic backgrounds from having fair opportunities, potentially resulting in underrepresentation within the company.

Moreover, not all companies view ethnic diversity as a priority; some perceive it as less profitable or not justifying the effort and expense it might entail. Additionally, in the absence of penalties or repercussions for neglecting ethnic diversity, there is little incentive for organizations to engage in substantive change. To truly embrace ethnic diversity, companies must go beyond lip service to meritocracy and address the underlying challenges that prevent it from becoming a reality in their workforces.

To truly champion ethnic diversity in its workplaces, Indonesia must engage in a unified effort that involves government bodies, businesses, and civil society, all underpinned by rigorous and factual analysis. Efforts have been made, particularly in the realm of education, with universities establishing quota systems to benefit students from marginalized communities and frontier regions. Scholarships designed specifically for students from underserved ethnic groups also represent significant progress in broadening educational opportunities.

Nevertheless, these initiatives, while valuable, may not be adequate in themselves. To build on these foundations, Indonesia needs to implement more robust affirmative actions. A critical first step is the comprehensive assessment of ethnic diversity across all sectors to identify gaps and opportunities. The scarcity of reliable data on this front hampers the ability to craft effective policies and strategies. By collecting and analyzing this data, Indonesia can lay the groundwork for more nuanced and effective interventions to cultivate a workplace that reflects the nation’s rich cultural and ethnic mosaic.

Drawing from the insights garnered through assessments, Indonesia might well consider the enactment of legal frameworks similar to Canada’s Employment Equity Act. Such legislation, which obligates federal contractors to establish employment equity programs, is designed to address the underrepresentation of minority groups. Adopting similar laws could empower Indonesia to develop a system that not only promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace but also tackles the systemic obstacles impeding the representation of ethnic minorities.

Engagement with knowledgeable entities is equally vital. Partnerships with both state and non-state organizations could elevate awareness and understanding of the value of ethnic diversity in the workforce. The International Labour Organization (ILO) offers practical insights for fostering an inclusive work culture. An alliance with the ILO could serve to amplify efforts in Indonesia, enhancing the capacity to weave ethnic diversity into the corporate fabric.

Upholding a resolute commitment to equity aligns with the ethos encapsulated in Indonesia’s national motto “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” signifying unity in diversity. It’s more than a symbolic phrase; it reflects a commitment to ensuring that all Indonesians, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, have an equitable stake in the nation’s progress. By endorsing such principles, the Indonesian government reaffirms its duty to promote an inclusive society, laying the foundations for the full participation of its ethnically diverse population in all facets of national life.

Andrean Sangabie Sancaya holds degrees in Law and Humanitarian Action. He currently oversees a virtual safe space called BRANI and is engaged in non-profit work. His involvement exposes him to a spectrum of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues, ranging from grassroots to higher levels of engagement.