Full Stoppage Ahead

By Vyt Karazija

Anyone who has visited Bali is struck by the number of ceremonies performed every day. From the thrice-daily canang sari – small baskets of rice, flowers and incense offered to the gods in gratitude for the richness of life to full-scale temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations. It is an inescapable part of Balinese culture, woven into the fabric of society, and of Bali life itself.

Those who live in Bali – and who employ Balinese staff – will also know that these essential rituals take priority over almost all other day-to-day activities, including work. Some house staff and employees have developed enough of a work ethic to give their employers at least some notice of forthcoming absences. However, many don’t, either not showing up for work at all or calling two minutes before the work day starts with the catch-all excuse, “Sorry, family ceremony today.” Or, “Can not work today, grandmother cremation…”

Sometimes it’s even true. But even if one possesses the gullibility of a brand-new tourist and the compassion of Mother Teresa, it’s still hard to remain a bastion of understanding when a “bereaved” staff member’s mother has supposedly died for the third time since they started working for you.

But discounting the inevitable opportunistic days off, the legitimate ceremonies which place constant demands on the Balinese are frequent, time-consuming and expensive. A recent report from Al Jazeera claimed that Balinese are now spending one third of their income on ceremonies. In a video clip about this trend, Bali’s Governor I Made Mangku Pastika expressed concern about the financial load on families who were already close to the minimum wage.

As reported in The Jakarta Post, Pastika went even further in an address to a Balinese Hindu organisation on Christmas Day, claiming that, unlike some other religions whose actions concentrated on “helping the poor, improving education and providing healthcare to the disadvantaged,” Balinese Hindus spent most of their energy on the ritualistic elements of their religion. He is reported to have said that they were so fixated on offerings to the gods and to natural forces that they were neglecting their fellow human beings.

Strong words. Without entering into a debate about the expression of any particular religion, it is clear that these ceremonies do take up a lot of participants’ time and money, and that they do tend to take priority over mundane aspects such as work. The impact on family finances, on their workplace’s profitability, and therefore on the broader Bali economy are undeniable.

Given Governor Pastika’s views, it was somewhat of a shock to read in the paper that he has just signed off on 18 new religious holidays for Bali. These new local holidays are “to allow Hindus to perform their various religious activities,” according to I Ketut Teneng, a spokesman for the provincial government. These are in addition to the 13 existing regional holidays and the five official joint leave days. So the Bali workforce now has 36 official days off – twice that existed previously. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many additional ceremonies that are not on the official calendar, but equally important. Many Balinese homes feature a small temple – and each temple has an odalan ceremony that is held on the anniversary of its consecration. An “anniversary” in Bali is not necessarily held annually. The Wuku calendar system here may well mean a celebration occurs every 210 days. In addition, local villages and community areas have their own temples as well, and obligations exist to honour festivals for these, too. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, each festival can continue for between one and 11 days.

And that’s not all. There are about a dozen life and death rites to be performed for every individual during their allotted span on Earth, some of which start even before birth. Some rituals are relatively quick, but others, like the Three Month Ceremony, which marks the occasion when a baby touches the ground for the first time, can be protracted affairs with many celebrants. Puberty rites and tooth filings are still carried out by some castes, and of course weddings and funerals involve lengthy celebrations. Then, every 35 days, there may be “honour days” for things made of metal, fruit trees, domestic animals, shadow puppets, dance paraphernalia and literature.

In total, “non-working” days in Bali now probably number close to two months of the year, if not more. I am starting to wonder if the Bali economy can afford it. While it’s easy for politicians to double the number of official holidays with the stroke of a pen, the question of how employers will be affected seems to have been ignored.

If you are a foreigner with staff, either domestic or business, the answer is simple. You will, as always, be expected to pay normal wages despite another 18 days’ loss of productivity. After all, who in their right mind would refuse to allow time off for Balinese religious and cultural imperatives? The problem is, some of the expat rumblings I have heard suggest that the simplest solution is to dispense with the services of Balinese altogether and employ locals from elsewhere in the archipelago. This, naturally, would not be good for Bali, but it could well be a logical consequence of arbitrarily doubling the number of holidays.

Then, of course, there is the local employer reaction, which tends to be a lot more pragmatic. One Balinese restaurant owner, when asked how the new holidays would affect his business, was quite blunt. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “My staff aren’t getting them. I can’t afford it.”

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