Silence of the Lambs

By Mark Ulyseas
For The Bali Times

UBUD ~ The first of May, or Labor Day as it is popularly known, is celebrated across the world. Many dismiss this as a throwback to communism, when rights were more apparent than duties.

Here in Bali, free trade and enterprise is the cornerstone of a prosperous and growing economy based primarily on the fruits and offshoots of tourism.

This island had tragically suffered in the past due to mindless ideology that resulted in death and huge losses for the then-thriving travel business that brought millions to its shores in search of a heavenly experience. It directly affected the livelihood of all and percolated down to the masses, i.e. the workforce.

However, as the years rolled on, business revived, albeit sluggishly, but has not reached its previous level of high energy and big profits. The side-effects of this growth has brought about a form of inflation that presently outruns the wages paid to the workers, thereby creating an uneven balance – monthly salaries lagging behind inflation.

This is not a criticism of the powers that be but a reality that we have to face in our daily lives wherever we are in the world, including Bali.

Basic costs like the increase in price of cooking gas and food grains etc. has created a piquant situation whereby workers are now spending a higher percentage of their earnings on food; added to this is the stark reality that the basic minimum wage is not paid by many commercial establishments in Bali, even though there is an existing law.

This is not my rendition of the truth but that of a young working couple, who shared with me some facts of life on the isle. While their beautiful three-and-a-half-year-old son sat on my lap and nibbled on a chocolate biscuit, we chatted about religious beliefs and the role of the banjar and the community at large. Soon the conversation veered towards tourism, the price of food and the sudden rise in the cost of living.

Then Dewi uttered the words, “We are living on borrowings because our salaries pay for only half our monthly household expenses. The rest we have to get help from our families.”

I asked them to give me an approximate breakdown of their monthly expenses for the readers of The Bali Times. The basic cost of living for this Balinese couple is as follows (in US$ equivalent of rupiah):

1. Rice                 $27

2. Vegetables/meat      $48

3.    Cooking oil/spices      $22

4.    Electricity             $ 9

5.    Water             $ 8

6.    Transport/petrol        $ 22

7.    Medical care            $ 22

8.    Ceremonies        $22

9.    Bank (installment on loan for motorcycle)       $47

The total is $227 whereas the combined salaries of Made and Dewi is $140 per month. Their earnings work out to $2.40 per person per day.

Made told me that their families, who are farmers, often give them some vegetables and fruit. They also get meat from the family on Galungan and Kuningan. In return for this occasional assistance, Made works in the field cutting grass for the cows prior to leaving for his job every morning. This is how they could make ends meet. Luxuries – like a family outing to MacDonald’s or any fast-food outlet – happens once in two months.

Dewi feels that the minimum wage for the work she does in a restaurant should be $80 for eight hours plus medical benefits and paid maternity leave. Although she shows her displeasure at being paid below the minimum wage, she is grateful to her employers, who give her food on the job.

I sat and heard this couple speak eloquently about their life with great dignity even though the resignation to a life living on the edge was apparent on their faces. But they appeared happy and content in a curious sort of way that defied logic. This was a side of Bali I had not known – the silence of the lambs.

After leaving Made and Dewi with her slumbering child in her arms, I drove straight to a well-known restaurant, ordered a meal and asked to speak to the owner, who I knew to be a fair and just person. I told her about my meeting with the couple and asked her to throw some light on the facts I had collected.

“Mark, please understand one thing: you can’t just speak to one couple and then start confronting me with what they said. We do a lot for our workers. Do you have any idea how many ceremonies there are in Bali? We have to employ twice as many people as is required because the workers are always off on some ceremony or the other.

“It’s their culture, their religion that we have to honor. Our limited resources are stretched when we have to employ nearly double the staff we actually require to run this restaurant. If I paid them what you say should be a fair amount, my business would close down.

“Now, I am not defending our low wages, but we do give them food and, yes, for deserving cases, we pay the medical expenses. When business nearly came to a standstill some years ago, we never retrenched the staff. They got their salaries on time. The result was a huge overdraft with the bank. We have to recover these losses.

“Do I have to spell out the fact that the tourist trade has only in the last six months registered a reassuring increase? The forecast for this year is bright and we hope the trend continues and there are no hiccups.”

The paradox in paradise is evident wherever one looks. The beauty, the ugliness smothered in a joyful blend of culture and commerce. Where this will lead to is anyone’s guess. Let us pray that Bali returns to the dizzy heights of yesteryears so that we can all go home with full stomachs and money to spare in our pockets.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

Filed under: Paradox In Paradise

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