Bali's unemployed turn to odd jobs, hard labour as COVID-19 ravages tourism sector
CNA speaks to three Balinese who lost their jobs in the tourism sector and have to take up odd jobs from selling incense sticks to building houses, so that they can put food on the table.
DENPASAR, Indonesia: It was barely 7pm and Kuta, Bali’s most famous and vibrant tourism hotspot, appeared desolate and grim.
Gone were the thumping sound of dance music blaring from its nightclubs, the calls of shopkeepers offering cheap clothes and souvenirs as well as the cheerful laughter of tourists from across the world strolling down its pavements in search of a good time.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide travel restrictions which followed have stopped the tourists from coming.
As a result, nearly all shops and restaurants lining the streets of Kuta had to shut down their businesses temporarily.
Kuta - an area which before the pandemic was crammed by thousands of travellers and where complete traffic gridlock could be observed at 2am on a weekday - is now completely lifeless.
This fate is shared by all tourism hotspots in the island, from the upscale resort area of Nusa Dua to the backpacking surfers’ paradise of Canggu.
Although Bali is far from being a COVID-19 epicentre when compared to other Indonesian provinces - it has more than 9,000 confirmed cases as of Oct 1 out of a national total of more than 290,000 - the island’s economy had been badly hit by the pandemic.
Experts estimated that 80 per cent of its economy rely directly or indirectly on tourism, and the Indonesian Statistics Agency said in July that the pandemic has caused a 89 per cent drop in the number of tourists coming to Bali.
The situation, according to Bali’s manpower agency, has cost the jobs of at least 75,000 workers who had been either laid off or forced to take unpaid leave.
Even those who get to keep their jobs have to survive on a severe pay cut of up to 75 per cent, workers interviewed by CNA said.
Then there are informal daily workers - freelance drivers and tour guides - whose income had been reduced to zero since the pandemic began.
But as dire as the situation may be, the people of Bali are not giving in and have instead stepped out of their comfort zones and done all they can to put food on the table.
Here are some of their stories:
STREET-SIDE INCENSE SELLER
For the past few months, cars with their boots open could be seen lining the 700m Puputan Street in Bali’s capital Denpasar.
Inside the boots were anything from household goods and food to second-hand clothes.
Almost all of the car boot vendors were hotel and restaurant workers who had lost their jobs or had to survive on reduced pay.
Competition to find the perfect parking spots was so fierce many sellers had to be there since 6am.
The vendors would stay until sundown, hoping to attract those working in government offices, banks or other sectors unaffected by the pandemic on their way to or from work.
But few of these office workers, car boot vendor Komang Gayatri told CNA, care to stop and shop.
“It’s tough selling here,” she said. After a day on the busy street, she only managed to sell two crates of eggs and two boxes of incense, a necessity in the predominantly Hindu island.
The 48-year-old mother of two has been a butler working for the same resort for the last nine years.
She watched as the resort’s customers started to leave when the pandemic hit Indonesia in early March. By April, there was no one staying at the fancy retreat located at one of the most famous beaches in Bali.
Gayatri was already making a small monthly wage of 3 million rupiah (US$201) before the pandemic and now she earns even less.
“Many people were laid off. Some were forced to take unpaid leave. I am one of the lucky ones because I am a permanent employee,” she said.
But her boss told her that the resort would only need her service eight days a month and that they could no longer afford to pay her original salary.
“They now pay me 100,000 rupiah per day. I only work eight days a month, so I only make 800,000 a month,” she said.
Gayatri’s husband, a rental car driver, had it worse. Because no one was hiring his service, his income had been reduced to zero.
Gayatri, a tiny, bespectacled woman with unkempt hair tied to a bun, is now the family’s sole provider.
To make matters worse, they have no money in the bank. All of the family’s savings were used to finance her son’s wedding last year and the recent birth of Gayatri’s first granddaughter in May.
Gayatri was on the verge of tearing up when she recalled the last three months of her life.
With a daughter still in school, her savings exhausted and her salary barely enough to buy food, the family grew desperate for cash. Then she remembered that she had a relative who has a small shop producing incense sticks. “I told my relative, ‘Can I sell them for you?’” she recounted.
Armed with a few boxes of borrowed incense sticks she went door-to-door offering neighbours the aromatic Hindu prayer necessity.
Only a handful of people bought her joss sticks, mostly out of pity.
“It was hard selling incense sticks door-to-door. I can’t compete with wholesalers who sell them for cheap. But they are the only goods I can afford,” she said. Despite her best efforts, she could only make a profit of no more than 30,000 rupiah a day.
For the last one month, she stopped knocking on people’s doors to sell the sticks, opting to become one of the many car boot salesmen at Puputan Street.
Her sales however have not improved, Gayatri said, despite branching out to sell eggs. But by selling from the back of her minivan, she could carry more goods and more importantly get her husband involved.
“My husband has not been working for so long. It is nice to see him out of the house and interact with people. This way we can focus on selling our goods and not worry about anything else. It takes our minds off negative thoughts,” she said.
DRIVER TURNED ODD JOB WORKER
The rice harvest season was fast approaching and paddy fields across the remote village of Tembuku, Bangli district had turned into a sea of yellow.
The only thing which could foil a bountiful harvest was the various kinds of birds which like to feed on rice grains jutting out of their husks.
The birds appear as no more than tiny specks moving across the blue sky and once on the ground, they are virtually impossible to spot on the vast paddy fields.
But Kadek Suarjana’s eyes are trained. With little hesitation, he flicked the ropes strung across his family’s field, causing the plastic bags and makeshift tin can bells attached to them to rattle and sway. The birds flew away.
Suarjana, a stocky 41-year-old with pierced ears, thought he had left the peasant life behind when he moved to the capital Denpasar, a 90-minute drive away, more than 20 years ago.
He became a driver-for-hire, earning 8 million to 12 million rupiah a month fetching tourists across the island. The money was enough to put his two children to school and buy his own minivan.
But like many other drivers in Bali, his income was reduced to zero when the pandemic hit and the tourists stopped coming.
“I was out of work. There was no money in the bank,” Suarjana told CNA. “Meanwhile, I have to pay for house rent and bills.”
Suarjana made the decision to return to Tembuku. “At least I won’t have to worry about food because back home we have a rice field and a small farmland,” he thought. “There had to be some work I could do there.”
But there was a problem. His teenage children, who attend school in Denpasar, had to do remote learning and the Internet connection back at his village was patchy.
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And so he sold one of his motorcycles so his wife and children could continue to live in the rented house they have been living for years while Suarjana looked for work at his village.
“For the past five months, I have been tending to other people’s farms and doing construction work. Basically, any odd jobs I can find,” he said.
Suarjana said he gets paid 80,000 rupiah a day as a farmhand and 100,000 rupiah as a construction labourer.
But as hard as he tried, the jobs were few and far between. In the five months he had lived in Tembuku, Suarjana said he had only worked for a total of 25 days.
“In one month, I can only make 500,000 rupiah, sometimes 700,000,” he said. “There would be weeks when I had no work at all. All I can do is sit at home or tend to my family’s garden and farm.”
Suarjana said he sent all of the money he earned to his wife and children in Denpasar. “For my own food, I can always ask from my mother,” he said.
Thankfully, Suarjana's wife knows how to sew. To supplement his income, Suarjana’s wife offered tailor service from their humble Denpasar home.
Bali’s decision to ease travel restrictions for domestic travellers in late June had very little impact on his life. “There had been calls and messages from my old clients. But they just reached out to me to ask me how I have been,” he said.
He is hopeful, however, that the next call would be from one of his regulars looking for a driver-for-hire.
"HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO PROVIDE FOR MY FAMILY?"
The back alleys of Bali’s Kerobokan area were buzzing with the sounds of hammers and handsaws and workers plastering newly erected walls.
Two properties were being built, while another was being constructed further down the road.
Land is still relatively cheap in Kerobokan despite its close proximity to the business centres of Denpasar and the tourist magnets of Kuta and Seminyak, making it the ideal place for workers to look for lodging.
Komang Sumantara was among the labourers constructing a three-unit property sitting on an alleyway just wide enough to fit motorcycles.
Meant for unmarried low-wage workers and university students and measuring just 4m by 5m each, the units can only fit a single bed, a standing closet, a desk, a small bathroom at the back and nothing else.
As the most inexperienced labourer working on the construction site, Sumantara’s tasks required little skills - straining the sands to weed out the coarse rocks, preparing cement mixture and moving heavy building materials.
They were mostly tasks so laborious and repetitive no one else would do them.
Sumantara, a 45-year-old father of two, had only been doing construction work for the last four months.
Before this, he was a freelance driver-for-hire making 5 million to 7 million rupiah a month.
The money was enough to put his two teenage children through school.
“I felt the impact (of COVID-19) in March. There were no customers. Tourists were starting to leave (Bali),” he told CNA. “There was no work. I was desperate. How was I supposed to provide for my family? How was I supposed to pay for my children’s tuition?”
He even had to borrow money just so that he could put food on the table.
Sumantara’s brother-in-law came with a proposition in May. He had been planning to build an income property just metres away from where Sumantara and his extended family live.
The brother-in-law asked if Sumantara would be interested in doing some construction work. The pay was lousy, just 100,000 rupiah for a day of hard labour, a fraction of what he would make driving tourists around Bali in an air-conditioned car.
Desperate for cash, Sumantara agreed.
But he soon realised just how hard it was to be a construction worker.
“I was not used to the heat. I was not used to the hard work. Every day, I had to haul in sacks of cements and lift heavy rocks,” he said. His body was so shocked by the sudden change in lifestyle that he fell ill.
“I thought about my kids and pretty soon I was back on my feet again,” he said.
He now works six days a week, earning just over 2 million rupiah a month. But he does not get to enjoy all of that money.
Several years ago, he decided to get a loan for a minivan so he could earn more money by renting and driving his own vehicle.
He was just months away from repaying all of his loans, but then COVID-19 started to sweep across Indonesia.
Sumantara said he tried to lobby his car’s leasing company to restructure his loan. He tried to argue that he was not making as much as he used to and highlighted the fact that he was just months away from repaying his loans and he had never missed a payment before.
But the company told him that he should at least pay a monthly interest of 800,000 rupiah instead of the full instalment of 3 million rupiah a month.
Sumantara had no choice but to accept the offer, even though this meant he only has 1.2 million rupiah a month to spend on food, tuition fees and other expenses.
“I am now lobbying (the leasing company) again for further reduction. I hope they will understand,” he said.
Regardless of what the leasing company’s decision may be, Sumantara said he is determined to pay up his loan with whatever money he has to improve his credit score.
The three-unit property was just weeks away from completion. What was left to be done was laying the tiles, installing the plumbing, electrical wiring and lighting fixtures, and giving the building a coat of paint.
Once completed, Sumantara would have to find another job.
“My eldest is 17 now. In a year’s time, I will need to borrow money again so he could attend university. I want my kids to have a better education than me. Even if it means that I don’t eat, that’s fine,” he said.