Like Mother Like Daughter? A Housekeeper's Tale in Jakarta

Like Mother Like Daughter? A Housekeeper's Tale in Jakarta
Antara Foto/Nyoman Budhiana/ via REUTERS
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'It’s easy to see why Yuyun was so eager to spare Rani her fate.'

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Anyone who has a housekeeper likes to think that they’re a treat to work for. My housekeeper didn’t see it that way.

With only a two bedroom apartment to look after, her workload was light-ish and her salary way above market rates. Still, Yuyun, my "pembantu" for five years was determined to save her daughter, Rani, from following in her footsteps. She worked two jobs to send the 19-year-old to university to study computer science. Then – and not for the first time – the girl ran off after a row with her mother. This time Rani’s stayed away. Apparently there’s a boy involved.

At 46, Yuyun easily looks 10 years older. Small and round she is affected by things. She would get a little teary if we left town for more than a couple of weeks. So this episode got to her. Not just because shared some of the work with her daughter, and didn’t feel she could keep up, although that must be a big part of it, but also because she was heartbroken the silly girl was seemingly throwing her life away.

“What’s the use of working so much if she isn’t going to school?” she sobbed. “Besides everything here reminds me of her.”

We tried the Western approach: offered to manage her hours, give her time off to be with her family. We were desperate to save her. Her machine-like precision with an iron, restaurant standard cooking and her reliability were the stuff of legends. The fact that she arrived every day, at the same time and hadn’t, like her daughter, just vanished one day – a not uncommon occurrence here – was worth fighting for. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Yuyun left in mid-March.

It’s easy to see why Yuyun was so eager to spare Rani her fate. The very definition of an informal sector service job, no unions advocate for them. No shouty young men take to the streets to stop traffic at rush hour to push for higher wages. Their salaries can be two-thirds of the minimum wage in Jakarta. Their job designation, "pembantu," means “helper” in Indonesian, but they get little help in return.

It can be worse abroad. Complaints of high recruiters fees, abuse and poor living conditions are common. Even so 2 million, or so, Indonesians work as maids overseas. So many are eager to work abroad, where salaries can be double the rate at home the government recently lifted its 2016 ban on Indonesians from working in 21 Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where instances of abuse are most common. Underemployment, poor access to quality education especially outside of the big cities and a knack for starting families young (women tend to start having kids young here) means becoming a "pembantu" maybe one of the view paths to a steady paycheque.

What will happen to Rani? It’s hard to say. She’s not doomed to a life of domestic service. The cities have more opportunities. But she’s risking a shot at a job at one of the many trendy software startups sprouting up in the leafier parts of Jakarta if she can somehow stay in school. That Rani had anyone in her corner willing to navigate her away from life’s shoals is rare, especially for a girl from a modest background. And while it might be easy to work for me and my neat-freak boyfriend, it’s still a waste of potential for anyone to spend much time scrubbing our bathroom.

Editor: Edward White