At Peace Without Money: An Intimate Look into the Indonesian Working-class

In 2014, I joined up with my parents’ company, a smalltime laundry called “Clean n’ Fresh.” We don’t really make all that much, just enough to support four people and my relatively cheap college tuition—at least when compared to those imposed on American students. Luxury is pretty much out of reach as we cannot even afford a home, just a studio apartment for my parents to live in while I rent out a room at a boarding house. We have two cars, both of which priced at less than ten-thousand U.S. Dollars, neither of which could go above 120 kph without filling up the interior with smells of engine fumes. Yet we still have to purchase and maintain over a dozen washing machines and driers, pour out cash for transportation costs, purchase all the raw goods needed to run a dry cleaning service, and most troublesome of all, pay the wages of over fifteen employees.

My role in the company is part marketing officer, and part head of human resources. The marketing aspect of my job doesn’t demand much, just some rudimentary application of Communications theories that I have learned from my first major. The second one, however, strains my mind to its limits as I have to learn brand new political and managerial theories, both of which are fields I can only be considered a novice at. Yet I’m not writing this article to explain and rant about my career, I’m here to illustrate the lives of my underpaid, underprivileged employees; the people I’m in charge of, and how my position has illuminated some of the most shocking elements of being impoverished in Indonesia.

Initially, I did not care much for my employees. They were cogs in a machine, some were more essential than others, but all of them replaceable. However, there was a problem amongst themselves and they, indirectly, with their employers. The employees, being individuals originating from the rural villages of Java, have quite the tendency to harbor ethnic prejudices to those their homes perceive as rivals. This resulted in minor spats over whose genetic roots are better, eventually resulting in them forming a kind of clans: the deliverymen, washers, packers, et cetera all only wanted to work with those of their own race or ones that originated from the same hamlet. For my parents and I, such a schism occurring between individuals whose duties are highly intertwined was intolerable. We had to find a way to make them work together, regardless of where they came from, otherwise the logistical mess we’d have to endure from a lack of communication would be unbearable. That’s where I came in, and it’s where I began to see them as fellow human beings.

Weeding out information is somewhat of a specialty of mine. I gathered data on why my employees would only work with those they see as lesser beings if excessive amounts of stimuli were introduced—direct, shouted commands, threats of pay deduction, and so on. I could not find anything new. Racial differences were the roots of the problem, and various reiterations of the same thing from different mouths did not help at all. However, I managed to fish out a common hobby of theirs, that all of them actually partake in together whenever they have the chance. It is a sport called futsal: a kind of mini-soccer played by five peoples per team. Apparently this is the only instance where they could cooperate with one another without any hassle at all.

As futsal is also a personal hobby of mine, I quickly joined up the team when offered the chance; which came in the form of, “Hey boss, you like futsal?” Yes I do, a lot actually. Business matters came first though. When I joined up with their team, it wasn’t purely for fun. I was there to observe, to see how their interactions on the field could perhaps be emulated in the workplace. One or two happenstances were not enough, especially the matches happened irregularly, perhaps once every two or three weeks. But they did result in an idea. My mother and I conjured up the notion of funding their games: the cost of renting the futsal court, drinks, shoe repairs, and a few other things were then all covered by Clean n’ Fresh. As a show of good faith on our part, and to give me more time to study my employees (believe me, the creepiness of that previous statement is not lost to my eyes).

In the pitch, my workers are a team. They could not care less where each of them were from, what ethnicity their teammates belong to, for all that mattered was beating the other guys. Each time someone scored, we all celebrated, even if the goalscorer is a particular rival of another during work-hours. There were no divisions here, all because of a simple reason. They were all united under the same banner, a team with no name, and would do their utmost to propel their squad to victory. I was quite nervous that they would treat me as simply the son of their employer, thereby giving me special treatments or excessively mocking me for my blunders, the likes. Yet none of those fears came to fruition. As long as I played as passionately and worked as hard as they did, my background faded away and I was just another member. It is a startling realization for myself as they previously would look at me with a detached, envious, and mildly spiteful expression. Now, before, during, and after a game, they’d talk to me as if I had been their longtime friend. Sure, a few kept maintaining their distance, but there were plenty enough willing to speak to me of their lives. Enough at least, to detract me from my original goal of finding a way to unify them. As another, perhaps more important purpose rose up: figuring out how and why my employees, and those of their economic class think.

My workers are miles away from wealth. Perhaps an automobile is something they can only ever dream of. I had always known these things, but hearing them describe just how poor they are tore up my conscience, for ever having thought of them as mere cogs. More than half of my employees had to start working before they turned sixteen. None of them have finished high school, a few made it halfway but ran out of funds to continue. They have no illusions of ever making it into college, as they know full-well how much more expensive it is than lower-level education, and how incapable they are of attaining full-fledged scholarships. Education, for them, is an unreachable dream.

I asked them, on one-on-one talks, what they wanted to be in the future. None of them could answer a question usually replied with complete confidence by three year-olds. One close to an actual response was “to be rich.” How he’d try to reach that pedestal is unknown to him, and it is more of a joke than anything resembling an actual motivator. The youngest of my employees, a boy who just turned fifteen, said he dreams of becoming a soccer player one day, but has no idea how he could afford the training required for it. Their lack of plans, of directions towards a finish line, is shown through their everyday decision-making.

For my employees, cellphones are a symbol of status and wealth. We’re not talking about iPhones, Samsung’s Galaxies, or anything close to these top-tier gadgets. A Chinese knock-off of the actual product, produced by Huawei or whatever other cheap-electronics company is enough for them. They could glue their eyes to a screen with less than 480p resolution, with apps so limited that one of them said to me their favorite video-games is the now ancient Snake, for hours on end. For these trinkets they’d spend all their hard-earned moneys, saving for months on end to get an an object many of us luckier fellows would call ‘junk.’ I was confused, at first, as to why they would use up all they had on what I can only see as useless objects. Then they explained to me, voluntarily, recognizing my reactions of utter bedazzlement.

“I don’t know what else to spend my money on,” said one employee. This sentiment is echoed by the others. Some would send a percentage of their pay back home, those more enthusiastic of motorcycles, set up savings for secondhand bikes. No one had their own bank accounts, either for accumulating their earnings, or conducting electronic transactions. This attitude is common among them and their economic peer group. They see no need to stock up for future financial droughts or opportunities. What money they had, they would immediately spend.

I made an attempt to convince my subordinates that they would be much better off by piling up their cash, rather than throwing them all away. They nodded and smiled, and kept on repeating the decisions they had already made. New bootleg phones, motorcycles with no turn signals kept popping up. Television sets worthy of the eighties, and dvd players priced below thirty Dollars were purchased. After all these transactions were finished, my workers would complain that they had run out of capital. I reiterated my previous advice, and it still seemed to not take hold. A rebuttal was offered, “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold on to this [money]. My family, my friends, they might suddenly need it. I can’t buy the stuff I want if I choose to wait.”

Presently, my employees work in unity. They are no longer ethnic rivals, but teammates because of the increased frequency of futsal games: an application of the ‘common enemy’ concept, which showed itself in the shape of teams from other small businesses. I consider myself a part of their team, and they—those who are willing to eliminate the barrier between us—as friends. Yet this success, which aids my business tremendously, does not bring me any form of satisfaction. A greater problem has been shed to light, one related to the behaviors and thoughts of the Indonesian lower-class.

Though my sample-size is too small for my findings to be noteworthy, I believe I have stumbled upon an important hypothesis. The working-class, the poor, the chavs of Indonesia, and maybe that of the world, are all plagued by a common sickness. They are prohibited from having dreams, from setting goals far in the future. What money they have they would rather use as quickly as possible, as they do not know how long such funds could last in their hands.

Education is another symptom. The minds of the lower-class are handicapped due to the inadequate schooling they receive. As social and natural scientists have expressed—the likes of Steven Pinker, Ian Morris, Richard Dawkins—the more knowledgeable we are, the more likely it is for our decisions to be tied into long-term plans (do read their works, specifically Why the West Rules—for Now, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Magic of Reality, as they have provided me with wisdom I could not have had). My employees and their kind do not have this trait, and are hence limited to stipulating only for the immediate future. I.e. what they perceive as possible in their already shrunk perspectives. How could they even plan ten years ahead if the educational system they’re supposed to stay in for twelve years could not even accomodate them that long? It is a direct  illustration of how temporary everything in their world is, to them and to us.

There needs to be a solution, not an immediate one maybe, but an existing one nonetheless. For how could the economy of a nation develop when one of its economic classes seek no future, no way out from their impoverishment? The danger lies in their complacency. How okay they are with the predicament they are in, whilst we of the middle- and upper-classes would struggle for air should we plunge as deeply as they have. Educational reforms, subsidies, what have you’s are needed. A better mind than I can probably construct an ideal plan of reparations, for I have no solution to offer as of now.

What I’ve done is merely showcase the conundrum of the lower-class. How they think, feel, and act. Alongside the possible factors that have led them to such patterns: A condition of eternal temporariness, of chaotic factors introducing themselves whenever they wish, of potentially luminous minds dimmed by inadequate support from the government.

Should anyone accuse me of greed for not raising the living standards of my employees, you would be partially right. Increasing their wages would possibly endanger my company into bankruptcy. Thus we can only provide them with non-financial aid. Healthcare benefits, the futsal games, overt tolerance for their mistakes, moral support for the younger workers, no-interest loans at the ready whenever they or their families find themselves in monetary free-fall. Whatever steps we can do to help them, encourage them to be more than what they currently are, we take. These are undoubtably not enough, but circumstance does not yet permit for my family and I to intervene any further than we already have. As for those who are underaged, and for the admittedly underpaid, I have tried time and again to find them new careers, those that can pay for their talents more than I ever could. Out of loyalty or familiarity, these men refused any such approaches, stating that they are wary of meeting new employers, afraid of even lower pays via deductions, and proclaiming proudly that they feel “at home” in my tiny laundry. I do not know whether I should be feeling elated or saddened by their words, as they explicitly illustrate my men’s loyalty—and proving hypothesis regarding their complacency—yet saying directly that they will liekly never try to be more than hard-laborers.

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