Bali’s Dickensian Workers
By Richard Boughton
In our continuing search for the cheapest cup of coffee as well as the cheapest mug of beer in Sanur, depending upon the time of day, my friend Mick and I happened one day upon a certain restaurant-slash-bar at the north end of town. It is a rather large place on a rather busy corner just off the bypass, and the establishment itself was rather empty, as most places in Sanur are.
Without going into undue detail on a peripheral matter, I will simply suggest that this is because there are far too many restaurants in Sanur serving far too few customers. The choices grossly outnumber the choosers, such that people, especially those who are on holiday and are thus experiencing a hunger and thirst for the greatest variety of experience that can be crowded into a limited number of days, find themselves faced with nearly inexhaustible options (and we’re talking about Sanur alone, without mention of Kuta, Seminyak, Jimbaran, Nusa Dua and so on). So why not choose that one around the corner today, or that other one down the road a piece. Variety, as the saying goes, is the spice of life – as well as the lifeblood of the seven-day holiday.
Add to this the sad fact that most of the restaurateurs hoping to serve the vacationing bule population have jacked up their prices beyond any reasonable measure – even for the bule with the legendary bulging pocketbook – and what you get are restaurants and bars, one after another, attended in the main by their own lonely staff members – young women who stand, or rather wilt, at the entryways, cradling menus and smiling sweetly.
Now, I’m not an economist by any means, but I cannot help but think that a surplus of one thing in coincidence with poverty in another (seller to buyer, that is) should result in a lowering of prices across the board. Who, in hopes of attracting a greater share of customers from a limited pool of the same, raises prices? Well, everyone, it seems. Less than three years ago the price of Bintang beer, for instance, hovered around Rp19,000 for the large. Now you find it ranging between Rp24,000 and Rp35,000 and more, and the price of a meal has experienced the same sharp increase. Where is the logic in this scheme?
But let’s return to the point from which we began – to that large empty restaurant-slash-bar on the busy corner in north Sanur. Upon entering therein, my friend and I did not find low prices, but did acquaint ourselves with the two pretty waitresses who worked there. I will call them Ani and Ayu, from Java and Bali respectively (some names and places have been altered to protect the innocent from my wife).
For some time – perhaps two weeks – Mick and I returned often. During this period, Mick obtained from Ayu an agreement to marriage (leaving marginally problematic matters such as love, a common language and the fact that he was already married to be sorted out later); and I obtained from Ani a rather astounding tale of robbery and squalor. In short, I was told that these delightful young women were working seven days a week, from 8 o’clock in the morning till 11 o’clock at night, for a grand total of Rp500,000 per month.
Is it possible! Is this not slavery? Is this how such establishments stay afloat – by paying paltry wages to desperate young women who perhaps don’t know any better, or else believe that they have no choice?
Shades of Charles Dickens and the 19th century – alive and well on the island of Bali.
Yes, but our meals are included, Ani told me. Not from the menu, mind you – but of rice and chicken and maybe some veggies.
My first thought was that these girls needed new jobs – especially Ani, who had no proposal of marriage, spurious or otherwise – and so I set out in search of the same. For this purpose, our habitual canvassing of culinary establishments in Sanur became at once quite useful, for I had acquainted myself with the ownership of more than a few restaurants and was generally in the know where staffing deficits are concerned. Ani entered her number into my phone and I began my new job.
Straightaway, I found a suitable position and shot an SMS to Ani detailing the good news. Her wages, should she secure the job, would be nearly Rp1 million a month, and she would work six days a week, eight hours a day. Ani’s response to this news, however, proved a bit less than blissful. There were problems. She had no motorbike, for instance. And she did not know where the restaurant was located, for she had been during the year of her residence in Sanur only to her workplace and back home again to her boarding house in Denpasar. Moreover, and most importantly, she was “takut” – afraid – and would need additional assistance in overcoming this condition. In short, I must personally pick her up, convey her to the employer and all but hold her hand during the application process.
So I did, and the job was secured.
Two days later, Ani called me with news of another friend in dire need of employment.
So it began; so it persists; so have I become a man of repute – the unpaid personal employment agent of Sanur and south Denpasar.
Filed under: Practical Paradise