NO NEW KARTINI?
On 21 April Indonesians celebrated Kartini Day. This recalls the brief life of Javanese emancipist Raden Ajeng Kartini who campaigned for women to be educated and independent. She died in 1904 aged 25.
Has her advocacy brought great changes? Not according to Duncan Graham:
Compared to their Middle East sisters, Indonesian women are liberated. The nation’s fifth president was a woman. There are women in high places in government and business, though not many. Only eight per cent of legislators are women.
To the average hail-and-farewell visitor who just notes dress and public behavior, females seem as free as in the West. But try looking deeper.
A good place to start is newspaper WANTED columns for sales and administration. The requirements are specific: Good command of English and maybe Mandarin, a degree from a top university and experience.
Plus something extra not seen in Western countries where discrimination is illegal: Must be under 25 and attractive. Photo required.
So however incandescent your intellect and diligent your record, if you’re blemished by acne or past the quarter century don’t bother applying.
The visible workforce in the flash offices is overwhelmingly female and young. Older women survive only in the government or in backroom jobs. Being unmarried and over 30 is a single-life sentence; if unemployed prospects are minimal.
The demand for secretarial jobs is huge; some of the best and brightest from prestigious tertiary institutions are rotting behind reception desks and customer service counters across the archipelago.
They may be polymaths outside but in the workplace their greatest challenge is serving tea without spilling. Their role is decorative and subservient.
They’re employed as eye candy for the men who come to do business with their boss. They make his coffee, order the cakes for his meetings and buy his cigarettes – often with their own money.
They are not expected to contribute ideas or opinions; that’s a male domain. The only power they exercise is the photocopier switch.
Before their beauty fades they’re expected to get married and leave – to be replaced by the next crop of campus cuties. They have no career path and can only rise through longevity.
The Government’s Manpower Department (the name’s a giveaway) determines wages and working hours but these are not policed. White-collar unions are largely toothless and in some cases have been bought off by management.
Working for a multinational is little different from a local company. Even overseas-funded religious schools think office staff can survive on Rp 1 million (US$ 110) a month.
Staff are frequently ordered to work back without notice. Although secretaries are supposed to be paid overtime the hassle of getting approval after the event means few bother.
Sick leave is rarely taken because the wrath that follows is worst than the illness. Her fortnight’s leave has to coincide with her boss’s holidays. A boss who recognises his underlings as fellow humans with needs and concerns is a rarity
For the privilege of working a secretary will be lucky to start with more than Rp 1.5 million (US $170) a month in the big cities, and a lot less elsewhere.
Clerk Dewi is a composite character drawn from many models. She works as a secretary for a multinational in Surabaya. She frequently has to translate head office instructions in English for her monolingual boss.
Dewi lives in a kos (boarding house) about 10 km from the office and gets Rp 1.7 million a month. Ideally she’d live with her parents, but they’re in another town. This is her monthly budget.
· Transport: Rp 250,000. (She uses bemo (mini busses) but has to change twice; each stage costs Rp 2,000.)
· Meals: Cooking is not allowed in her kos, so all meals have to be taken outside. Rp 600,000. (She eats in warung (roadside cafes) and budgets Rp 20,000 a day for the simplest and cheapest meals.)
· Laundry, make up and hairdressing: Rp 160,000.
· Accommodation: Rp 600,000.
Clearly there’s no room for unexpecteds or luxuries. She gets a uniform and launders this herself. Her private time is spent washing, ironing and maintaining appearances. She has nothing left for entertainment or travel. Health care is covered by company insurance but there’s a monthly limit.
Her Idul Fitri bonus of a month’s extra salary is spent on clothes and presents – and money for her parents.
The kos is the best she can afford. It’s a 10 square metre room with plywood partitions sub-dividing a lounge in a shabby private house. There’s a rough single bed and a wardrobe; no linen. Lighting is a one 15-watt globe.
She shares a small bathroom with six other working women and has to be in by 9 pm every night. Her door is secured by a tiny padlock. Petty theft is common.
Neither working nor living conditions would be tolerated for a moment by any Australian. But in Indonesia complaints result in dismissal or eviction, and there’s no shortage of more docile candidates.
No wonder most believe they can be rescued only through marriage. Dear God, may the next customer be Mr Right.
At a personal level it’s dreary and depressing, but in broader terms there’s a more serious issue: How can a country hope to prosper if the talents and education of half the population are ignored?
Kartini, where are your successors?
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 April 06)