Slavery in all but Name

Many of our readers have rightly been outraged that the St. Regis hotel operates a stable of Balinese and other Indonesian butlers who during their working hours are not known by their given name but one taken from the Western world of subservience. It is a disgraceful affront and a violation of the intrinsic human rights of the individual.

Indeed it may also be illegal, according to the National Commission on Human Rights.

The lavish hotel, part of the New York-based Starwood group that is in debt to the tune of US$3.3 billion, is a year old. Based on the latest available financial data from Starwood, which in Bali also owns Le Méridien and the Laguna hotels and is building a W hotel, St. Regis hotels around the world have led sister properties in steeply discounting their famously high room rates (in Bali, topping $5,500 a night).

This selloff suggests a bid to claw in cash that has been staying away. Not surprising: The world is a different place now. Twelve or more months ago, when the economic climate sank below freezing, people started to make more rationally based purchases. Suddenly luxury is as abominable a term as climate change. The fiscal meltdown was generated by a mountain of debt; St. Regis sits atop a similar, corporate, pile of its own making.

The new era of asceticism is witnessed in the step rise of the low-cost air carrier while traditional legacy airlines flounder deep in the red – the world’s largest, Japan Airlines, has just filed for bankruptcy.

It is amid this austere backdrop that we question the necessity for the St. Regis hotel in Nusa Dua to spin a veneer of yesteryear luxury by giving its butlers Western names. The hotel says it’s just a marketing “gimmick” – which has further enraged our readers: employees are not to be used as a device in a publicity stunt – and that the adopted monikers are “stage names.”

This is not a show. It is a hotel operation where everyday Balinese, Javanese and others work hard to serve guests, to earn a salary and feed their families. Slighting their rights by purporting – in working hours – to deny their ethnicity is abhorrent. The hotel, in the single – and singular – response it has publicly managed to make, has also told The Bali Times its butlers are free to opt into the renaming programme, and that some choose to retain their own names. However, at least one butler has told guests – not the hotel management – that he feels uncomfortable with his Western name and would prefer to use his own.

We are all too aware in Bali of a meek workforce who desperately need their jobs and are deathly afraid to bring up issues to management lest they be fired.

In a parallel situation, a Balinese employee at an upscale fitness centre in Sanur that is owned by a Javanese and has mainly professional expatriates as its client base has told us that staff there are not paid the government-mandated annual bonus (THR) and are not allowed to take time off during the important Hindu holiday of Galungan. “If we were to complain, we would be told to find another job,” the employee, a personal trainer, said.

Critics of the misshapen St. Regis butler programme say the management are out of touch with Balinese culture, which is one of main reasons tourists want to come here. We agree. Perhaps this is why the hotel is flogging off its rooms. To come to Bali and be served by a gracious Balinese butler called Edgar and not Made is anathema to everything this extraordinary island stands for.

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