Essay: Domestic help in Jakarta

A year and a half had elapsed since my transfer to Jakarta.  By then, although I had become used to my work in Indonesia, I still needed to sort out the question of how to handle my domestic help.  When expatriates gathered together, the most talked-about topic was about their household staff, indicating that many people were experiencing difficulties with their employees.  I wished I could do without hiring one, but it was highly advisable to have someone in the house for security reasons.

Many domestic workers in Jakarta would hate to work alone, so they would often plead with the employer to hire a second person to work and chat with. However, while they might be too lonely to work alone, they would sometimes get into quarrels with fellow workmates, creating extra problems to the employer.  Thus, I always made it clear at each job interview that I would hire only one person since the amount of work at my home was too little even for one.

Even those who had lived in Jakarta for over a decade and who by now had a good understanding of the language as well as the customs and characters there seemed unable to find someone reliable and trustworthy, willing to work alone for a reasonable length of time.  An acquaintance told me that she had hired about fifteen housemaids over the last twelve months as they all quit the job after very short spells.  One of them had apparently left her place only after one day.  She was envious that my domestic help seemed to last so long, but all the same the current one I had was my fourth.

This woman had now been with me for three months.  I always tried to keep her happy.  When my work held me beyond my normal office hours, I would give her a call.  I would buy her a newspaper or a magazine everyday to keep her occupied.  Furthermore, I let her use my radio, television and cassette player as she pleased.  The way I was treating her sometimes made me feel as if I were a newly wedded man always trying to please his new wife.

She said she had an elementary school education.  As she was only 19 years old and was still young, I advised that she acquire some kind of new skill which would always be helpful to her in the future.  She carefully considered the idea and expressed her wish to go to a sewing school, so I agreed to pay for her entrance and tuition fees for three-hour lessons twice a week.  She also wanted to buy a sewing machine, so we agreed that I pay for it initially but would deduct the amount in small installments from her monthly salary.

When discussing which sewing machine to buy, I suggested that she get an electric-powered portable one that would be easy to be transported.  As there was no electricity in her village in East Java, however, she preferred a big, old-fashioned one with a large foot pedal.  The idea of her in possession of a heavy sewing machine led me to think that such an item might be instrumental in keeping her at my place longer than otherwise. (Translation of an essay in Japanese that appeared in ILO Journal in January, 1990)

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