Indonesia Expat
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Maid in Indonesia

One giant sweep for mankind…

Maids, domestic helpers or pembantu as they are known in Indonesian can hold their mops proudly aloft with their illustrious forebears, who include among their ranks unplugged Austrian legend Maria von Trapp, Filipino heroine Corazon Aquino, the long-suffering Jeeves and–of course–intellectual behemoth Baldrick from Blackadder. The majority of western expatriates, however, come from cultures in which generally only the wealthiest citizens can afford such luxuries. Maids can present something of an ethical quandary in other words.

Does one have a moral obligation to clean up after oneself and to take responsibility for one’s own soiled underwear and Pringle-crumb-filled bedding?

Employing a maid for the first time can tend to make one feel like a spoiled ’70s rock star who has just engaged in an act of television defenestration through a posh hotel-room window prior to one’s manager squaring things up at reception with a huge wad of greenbacks. Are pembantu a dereliction of moral duty then? Does raising kids in such an environment help engender a sense of entitlement in them? Perhaps such thoughts do ultimately bounce around in many an expat’s subconscious minds. However, if this is the price that one has to pay for having the remains of last night’s Bintang reflux dealt with, then most seem to be able to live with themselves.

Mind you, on the other side of the argument, if you can offer someone a job at a fair wage, treat them in a decent manner and provide for their medical needs, then maybe you can improve their lives. The argument is even sometimes made that it is actually selfish to not spend an inflated expatriate salary hiring locals in this way.

Maids are often taken for granted though, and at worst, have to suffer awful abuse. Recent cases involve a fugitive pembantu being apprehended in the engine room of a Batam ferry after her elderly Singaporean employees were found dead in their flat. She claimed years of abuse in her defence. At a more pedestrian level, wage violations involving domestic staff are common in Indonesia, as are various forms of cruelty and mistreatment.

Perhaps more alarmingly, for the readership of this fair periodical at least, some 70 percent of reported cases concerning the economic mistreatment of domestic workers in Jakarta involve expatriate employers. That’s according to the National Network for Domestic Workers Advocacy (Jala PRT). This figure encompasses expats from South Korea, Malaysia, China, Japan, Europe, Australia and the US. You horrible, horrible people. Consider your golf club memberships revoked forthwith.

However, I should stress that this doesn’t mean that us outcomers necessarily make worse employers than Indonesians, who generally don’t even offer contracts. Indeed, the number of reported cases is but the tip of a no doubt depressingly large iceberg. Despite all these potential pitfalls, however, unskilled workers continue to flock to the capital in search of work as maids every year, much to the chagrin of the city administration and undoubtedly a sad indictment of the lack of economic opportunities on offer elsewhere around the country.

Mind you, sometimes the humble pembantu can fight back, as documented in political scientist James Scott’s 1987 book Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance.  In a nutshell, unable to rebel directly for fear of repercussions and the ongoing need to earn a meagre crust, society’s most disadvantaged members can employ so-called “weapons of the weak”.  These can include such things as foot-dragging (working very slowly), feigned ignorance, false compliance (i.e. not following through and doing what you’ve said you are going to do), gossip, pilfering and petty acts of sabotage. Sound familiar? It’s certainly a way of getting back at a system that pays people an extremely minimum wage and which doesn’t appreciate their efforts in their jobs.  This idea of resisting without seeming to resist puts a rather different complexion on some unpleasant local stereotypes.  

Of course, maid-related anecdotes and vignettes abound across middle-class Jakarta and are more than a little amusing. My own personal favourites include an ex-girlfriend of mine who earnestly recounted to me the time that a schoolteacher demanded to see her mother over her continued classroom insubordination. Not missing a trick, my paramour promptly dressed her family maid up smartly in her mother’s clothes and dragged her into school to take the heat. Score one for the humble pembantu.

My second tale involves a friend’s maid who, feeling a trifle peckish one night when nobody was home, raided the fridge for ingredients and artfully whipped up a nice bowl of noodles with mushrooms. Unfortunately for her, said mushrooms had just been brought back from Bali and were of, shall we say, a “special” variety. Much mayhem and not much mirth ensued as–not very long after consuming said noodles–my friend’s maid, not being familiar with the Terence McKenna weltanschauung, believed herself to be firmly in the grip of demonic possession and, with a sense of rising panic, promptly aroused the concern of local neighbors after wandering around on the street outside the house shouting before ultimately hot-footing it down to the local mosque to demand a quick exorcism from its bemused occupants.

My final tale today involves my own former maid Sri, who (after working for four itinerant bule employers living in an area that we dubbed “lightning alley” owing to its unstable electrical supply) once had to deal with a major crisis when no one else was home. Fielding a breathless call while at the office one afternoon I learned that all of the electrical appliances in the house had started pouring smoke simultaneously, while the TV in the living room had actually caught fire. The poor girl seemed to have PTSD for months after that episode. PLN, eh? 200 million static, sorry, ecstatic customers can’t be wrong.

Maybe to build a little self-resilience, a pembantu free day once a month or even once a week, like a car-free day, would be an idea to consider. Yes, it’s time to get the little iPad-brained brats to tidy up the house for a bit of pocket money instead. And make sure that they sweep the chimney.

See: Tips for Employing Household Workers in Indonesia

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