To the many impoverished inhabitants of other islands of Indonesia, particularly the landless of East Java across the narrow strait in both rural and urban areas like Banyuwangi and Jember, Bali has become the land of milk and honey. Ubud is but one of the ‘hubs’. What is a “paradise get away’ for the holidaying tourist, lured by the ever strident marketing calls of an industry that thinks only in terms of “boom or bust”, is the land of  opportunity for the inhabitants of neighbouring islands a simple ferry ride away.

words and photos by Rio Helmi

Though the official minimum wage of the Banyuwangi regency, 2.4 km away across the Bali Strait, is barely Rp200,000.- below that of Gianyar’s (around Rp 1,700,000.- , approximately US$150 a month) that figure doesn’t reflect the reality of the many jobless or underemployed in that area. It is telling that despite Banyuwangi’s very real progress over the last few years under the leadership of the dynamic Azwar Anas, and the rapid economic growth of the Jember regency next to it, that these two kabupaten or ‘administrative regencies’ are two of the major sources of migrant workers in Bali today. Though proximity is an obvious factor, it really boils down to a familiar developing country issue: distribution of wealth exacerbated by urban growth vs rural decline.

Where there is work in the countryside it is often back-breaking and badly paid. An example of an exception to poor wages would be the case of the sulfur miners in Ijen in Banyuwangi. Their income is variable as they are paid according to productivity, but most can average Rp 130,000 a day.And they get to stay close to their families. But the very real and cruel downside to these miners’ situation is the back breaking work in extremely hazardous conditions: carrying 70kg loads up steep rocky crater trails with sulfur fumes swirling around them takes a heavy toll on backs and lungs.

Migrants-RioHelmi050In the sulphur mines of Ijen: comparatively good earnings but a heavy toll on the back and lungs.

East Java has had its own share of ‘ethnic’ migration. Large percentages of the populations of these two regencies are actually Madurese who have migrated over the decades from their own island. Nowadays the population of the one regency of Jember nearly equals that of the entire province of Bali. The ever growing pressure to find jobs for a large swathe of the population who live at bare subsistence levels leads to the inevitable. Bali’s booming economy, deceptive though it can be, is like a gigantic magnet for a large spectrum of hopeful people: well educated management types, highly trained technicians and artisans, construction workers, farm laborers, and inevitably criminals of all calibers.

The only Balinese nowadays who take on coarse laboring jobs are from remoter impoverished areas of Buleleng and Karangasem, but they constitute a minority and usually only employed by minor local contractors doing government jobs like ditches and sidewalks where quality control is a highly corrupt process and doesn’t require quality. Major contractors working on large scale projects like 5 stars hotel end up employing an overwhelming majority of Javanese skilled workers, who are overall cheaper and easier to manage; and crucially require less time off for the plethora of ceremonies that make up a huge part of Balinese peoples lives. The contractors build shanty dormitories for the migrants where they are semi quarantined and monitored by local authorities, and they will work 7 days straight for months on contract.

_D7H3580-copyMigrant construction workers: semi-quarantined and trucked to the site.

Then there are the more entrepreneurial skilled workers and journeymen who often set up shop locally after finishing contracts on building and other projects. The quality of their services and their own work conditions vary greatly. More and more they are becoming inextricably implicated in Bali’s economy. This is easy to see: the one time a year when Muslim Javanese will take a substantial break is holidays at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. During this period it is increasingly difficult to find services like that offered by plumbers or electricians: the standard excuse is “They’re still home in Java for Lebaran”.

Those with the least bargaining power are the temporary agricultural workers. Here there are hardly any controls, and mostly they are contracted by local farmers to harvest rice or fly by night operators who have scrounged enough money up to lease fallow ricefields for a few months to grow melons or such. Their working conditions are even worse than construction workers, and their pay far below the minimum wage. Tarpaulins stretched over makeshift frames, thin rubber mats on damp ground, fume prone kerosene stoves: this is their lot whether for a few nights or a few months. They handle and spray, with little protection, cocktails of chemical pesticides which have been banned in many countries. Quarry workers use high powered circular saws with no shoes or work gloves, no protective scaffolding is set up and insurance isn’t even a concept.

Migrants-RioHelmi054A migrant agricultural worker prepares a meal under a makeshift tent in the fields.

_D7H6548For the freelance quarry workers, insurance isn’t even a concept.

Though many Balinese look down on these newcomers (who currently make up 25% of Bali’s population) and are suspicious of them, it is a fact that Bali’s economy and service industry would suffer greatly in their absence. The ‘newcomers’for their part often find the Balinese unduly arrogant. On the ferry to Java one day a tailor from Blitar said to me “Mas, I don’t understand why they are so proud. They are just landlords who have had a windfall, they don’t do anything. We work hard and make things work”. A popular old joke that has made the rounds goes something like this: “The Javanese come here selling bakso meatballs to buy land. The Balinese sell land to buy bakso.”

Obviously not all the migrants bring with them is beneficial. Criminal elements find easy pickings with unsuspecting tourists – the very real risk of mob lynching by Balinese doesn’t deter them. Coming from dirt poor backgrounds, even some legitimate construction laboroers succumb to the overwhelming temptations: scantily clad young Western ladies scooting about at night with bulging purses dangling casually off their shoulders, unimaginable wealth barely a five foot wall away, etc.

Today tensions keep growing. Shanties set up ostensibly for a one-off project remain long after the project is finished, and become bases for new arrivals connected by family or region and start to mushroom. Local Balinese get nervous and angry about it, and suspect some of their own officials of looking the other way in return for favors and payoffs. Religious differences are becoming more marked as a island trend to more emphatic ‘Hindu fundamentalism’ takes hold.

Even amongst the migrants themselves clannishness and ethnocentricity thrives. In dormitories set up by contractors, Madurese from Jember will more often then not sleep in one room, while Javanese from other areas will choose their own room together, a Javanese group of woodworkers from Jepara in Central Java will set up their own camp, and so forth. In districts like Tuban near the airport, sprawling, maze-like ghettoes have sprung up along ethnic and regional lines.

_D7H3407Dormitories segregated along ethnic and regional lines.

Migrants-RioHelmi_004A trash recycler from Jember living and working on an illegal dump site.

As the island population grows and the competition for land resources becomes ever fiercer these seeds of conflict have sprouted. Nerarly 25% of the island’s population are migrants. Clashes between locals and the newcomers are becoming more common, every once in a while spreading into mass confrontation. It is a serious challenge that needs to be addressed on an all out level before it is too late. We are after all supposed to be one nation, one people. A fair distribution of wealth and welfare is our only real insurance for the future.