Bali’s Dickensian Workers

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.


  1. Alan says:

    Being a regular visitor to Bali and constantly staying in Sanur, I was so taken by your article. I have seen so many small businesses close down, not due to high prices but lack of tourists..some obviously cut their own throats due to increased prices..others tried to survive. Some sadly used staff to entice customers..That is obviously where you went…and your article reflects this. Shame on you!!! Many men will see your article as a chance to chat up the chicks… We know it happens but hey!!! you..please don’t advertise it. Lost me as a reader of your articles….

  2. Richard says:

    Sorry to see you go. Since you know the situation in Sanur, it is perplexing that you seem offended by heearing about it. I said, btw, that we were looking for the cheapest coffee, not looking to “chat up the chicks.” For myself, I merely befriend these people, men and women, and in the case of these two girls, merely tried to help them out of a ridiculous, unacceptable situation. They remain my friends to this time and are both working at new jobs with fair hours and fair wages — thanks to my efforts in their favour.

  3. Alan says:

    Richard, yes, as you said,you were initially looking for the cheapest cup of coffee and mug of beer! But you lost the plot by sidetracking about Micks’ marriage proposal/arrangement (absolutely nothing to do with it!!)and the fact…his marital status…”needed to be sorted out later”
    That was the part of your editorial that “offended me”. It was totally unwarranted. I do, however commend you for finding alternative employment for these unfortunate young ladies who were being exploited by their working conditions / bosses. As a regular visitor to Bali, not a resident, I always strive to help someone each time I visit…I have given many dollars to such unfortunate young mothers to aid in their childrens education, without the need for “favours”. I always bring a suitcase full of my grandchildrens clothings(sometimes toys, depending on size)each time I visit.
    May I also thank you for your reply(non abusive!), as mine was meant, in the same tones. Keep up your good work…will follow your editorials again. Alan

  4. Richard says:

    Alan — I did intend, in the mention of Mick’s disingenuous marriage proposal, to juxtapose one bule attitude toward the people and conditions here (his) with another (mine), in hopes that the reader would think about some of the flippant perspectives that do exist.
    Thanks again for reading and commenting.

  5. Alan says:

    please don’t try to confuse…with fancy unknown/recogised words…please explain…juxtapose..(who knows this word, other than you?) KISS principal please.

  6. Richard says:

    Juxtapose: To compare one thing/attitude with another by placing them side by side. Sorry to have confused.