Posts Tagged ‘ceremonies’

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A Staff Profit-Sharing Scheme – Bali Style

February 13, 2012

Maybe it’s time for restaurant staff in Bali to get unionised. The more I find out about employer practices here, the less I like it. The last week, with low tourist numbers and an intensive ceremonial period, has been an eye-opener.

So I wander in to one of my regular restaurants, an attentive staff member materialises, and we exchange the usual pleasantries. I’m not really hungry and don’t feel like an alcoholic drink, so I order an iced tea and a relatively cheap prawn entrée. The waiter is stricken. “What’s the matter?” I enquire solicitously. He looks incredibly disappointed. “Only that? No full meal? No scotch and coke? Not even a Bintang?” He wanders off disconsolately.

Five minutes later, one of the attractive waitresses comes over to ‘check my order’, which is code for trying to up-sell me. She can’t understand why I’m ordering so little. I explain my uncharacteristic restraint, because normally I am noted for both my gluttony and fondness for a moderate tipple. “I think you should get the steak”, she says, “you will get too thin!” No chance of that, I think. When the up-selling fails to work, she slopes off, but I see an unexpected sadness in her usually cheerful eyes.

“Ah, I get it”, I say to her departing back. “You get commission, right?” I am joking, but I see from her expression as she stops and turns around that I have hit a nerve. “Yes.” she says with a grimace, then stops suddenly and corrects herself. “No, not commission, but …” But then she refuses to say any more, except for a briefly muttered “Doesn’t matter”. Something is going on here. I want to find out what it is, but everyone clams up when questioned.

The next day, I find out why from my secret sources. The restaurant in question is one of those that include both government taxes and the staff service charge as part of the menu prices. That’s one reason I like it – you are not hit with up to 25% surcharge when the bill arrives. A restaurant’s ‘service charge’ is supposed to go directly to the staff in lieu of tips, and many service workers rely heavily on this money to supplement their very meagre monthly salary.

I know that some unscrupulous owners never pass this money on, retaining it for their own benefit. But apparently this particular restaurant has added a new wrinkle. If the gross take is above a certain owner-determined amount, the legally-mandated service charge is passed on to staff. But in times of low tourist numbers, that minimum revenue is not reached, and staff are paid only their wages, which are barely enough to live on.

The pressure is therefore on staff to cajole customers into more expensive meal choices, desserts and extra drinks – because they know they have to raise the gross receipts enough to trigger payment of the service charge, or miss out. This might be smart business practice, but it’s, you know, just a little bit naughty.

There are other ways that restaurants use to save costs and therefore increase net revenue. Ever notice that the quantity of food seems to be less when times are tough? In sea-food dishes, you might find that the number of prawns drops alarmingly, or the vegetable portion shrinks to a minuscule dollop of green stuff. If I wanted nouvelle cuisine, where over-priced restaurants serve 50g food portions on a one-metre diameter plate, I wouldn’t be in Bali. I do like quality, but frankly, quantity trumps all when you’re hungry.

Then there is the ‘shortage of produce’ excuse for saving money. One of my favourite places suddenly has no mango juice on the menu. Now you may think that is trivial, but for me, it is a veritable tragedy, because I have a belief in the mystical properties of fresh mango juice that transcends reason. It not only hydrates and provides electrolytes, it cures hangovers, restores potency, builds muscle mass and dissolves stomach fat while increasing alertness and mental acuity. OK, OK, I lie like a cheap doormat; it doesn’t really do that. But I like it, and insist on having it for breakfast almost every day.

“Why is there no mango?” I cry plaintively. “Out of season.” is the reply from the waitress. “No it’s not”, I retort crossly, “every other restaurant around here has it!” She shuffles a bit and looks uncomfortable. “Um, the boss won’t buy it – too expensive”, she finally admits. I try to explain that I understand that fruit prices fluctuate, and that I will happily pay a premium to compensate the boss for his horrific loss of earnings. It would probably cost me an extra 2000 rupiah per glass. No dice. She leans over to whisper “He doesn’t want to change the menu to a new price. Too expensive to change.” I hope she explains to the boss why his strategy means that I don’t go there for breakfast any more, but I somehow doubt that she will.

The techniques used to maximise restaurant profits here also appear to include over-working the staff. Where else would you find a staff roster that schedules staff for an afternoon shift finishing at midnight and expects them to be on deck at 7am the next morning? Where else would you find staff scheduled for work on a major religious public holiday when they have family obligations? I spoke to one waitress who was working disconsolately while her family were spending the day, without her, at an important ceremony. “Why are you working today?” I ask, surprised. “Didn’t you tell the boss that you have to be with your family – that it is important for you?” She tightens her lips in that classic Balinese expression of quiet anger, and mutters, “He said the restaurant is more important than my ceremony.”

I look around. “So where is the boss?” I ask, intending to gently chide him. “He is not here today.” I’m confused “Why not?” I ask.  “He said he has an important family ceremony”, she says through gritted teeth. She doesn’t say: More important than mine, but I can hear her think it.

I guess it’s the privilege of the ruling classes to take time off while their staff work on designated public holidays. And of course, it’s their privilege to maximise profit, regardless of the human cost. But really, is it worth it?

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Tradisi – Women Working Without Weeping

January 30, 2012

My young breakfast waitress comes over to the table. It’s only 9:30 am, but her face already shows more than the normal strain of  the breakfast rush. Her eyes are underlined by dark semi-circles and she looks drawn and weary. Actually, she looks exhausted.

“Big party last night?” asks yours truly, Mr. Sensitive, before remembering that she is a traditional Balinese girl. Parties, at least those of the type familiar to most of us Westerners,  are just not her scene. I’d also forgotten that the staff at that restaurant normally do an afternoon shift ending at 11pm, followed the next day with a morning shift starting at 7 am. That sort of load is gruelling under normal circumstances, but for a Balinese woman, it is even more taxing at this time of the year.

“Oh no! No party!” she says, scandalised. “After work, I have many things to get ready for Galungan.” This, of course, is one of the big ceremonial occasions of the Balinese religious and cultural calendar. She tells me that she did not finish all her Galungan duties until late and finally went to sleep at 3:30 am – only to get up two hours later to start her work day.

I am stunned. “But you have a job, and you finish so late at night …”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says. “I am a Balinese girl; this is what I have to do, even if I have a job.”

It is no surprise that there is a great deal of preparation for the many ceremonies in Bali, but I had always been under the impression that all members of familial and community groups shared the load – men and women alike. Apparently this is not so. Balinese women, by long-standing conservative tradition, appear to undertake the bulk of the responsibility for preserving and safeguarding Balinese Hinduism, including a central role in all rituals and ceremonies.

Despite men being the visible administrators and spokesmen for Balinese religion, they play little part in the religious education of their children. This is a role reserved for women, who pass the torch of essential rituals on to the next generation. Of course, women are the home-makers too. In most cases they are responsible for provision and preparation of food and in fact, for all the home comforts expected by the members of extended family groups. Most money matters are handled by women as well, as is the children’s education, payment of school fees and hand-crafting of the daily ceremonial offerings. Tradition demands not only that women passively accept what life dishes out in Bali, but that they take pride in their contribution without questioning it. Should an outsider suggest that exploitation is taking place, he is met with expressions of shock and disbelief – from women as well as men.

What is difficult to fathom is that, as women assume more and more important roles in the Balinese economy with their participation in the workforce, their demanding traditional roles have not changed at all. The time-consuming home-making, religious and ritualistic duties have not diminished one iota. It is considered perfectly normal for women such as my exhausted waitress to work two back-to-back shifts and spend the intervening ‘rest’ period doing her ceremonial ‘duties’. Feminism has not yet made inroads into Bali life.

And what are the husbands, fathers, brothers and male cousins of these working women doing? Well, in all fairness, some are working at jobs too, but at least they get to relax after finishing work. Many get to relax during their jobs too, if the countless sleeping taxi drivers clustered around warungs and shacks in peak periods is any indication. But I see huge numbers of layabout men engaged in nothing more strenuous than smoking and gossiping  in those endless male bonding rituals on street corners and outside Bali’s ubiquitous Mini-Marts. How many of them will be assisting their female family members with their traditional ‘women’s duties’ after work? Oh wait, they can’t – it’s prevented by ‘tradition’ – and there’s probably a good cock-fight or game of pool to shoot anyway.

So I ask my waitress, “Do the men do anything to prepare for Galungan?” “Oh yes”, she says quickly, “They make the penjors, and … well, they make the penjors.” She explains that the penjor – a tall, curved bamboo pole heavily decorated with coconut leaves – needs construction skills which are only possessed by the men. “So do the men help with any other preparations for ceremonies?” I ask.

She visibly struggles with her feelings, and says with a mixture of pride and regret, “No, not really. We are women, it is what we have to do …” There is an unspoken ‘but’ at the end of her sentence. I can see she is torn between her acceptance of tradition and the questions that inevitably arise as her society wrestles with looming modernity. She is starting to think about gender roles, about imbalances, and about fairness.

She stays silent for a minute, but what I hear is the first subterranean creaking of a seismic shift in one woman’s awareness. Then, out of the blue, she says, “Do you believe in re-incarnation?” I tell her that I don’t.

“Well, I do”, she says pensively, and pauses again. “I think, next time, I want to come back as a man.”

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For Balinese, Soon There May Be No Time Left For Work

January 9, 2012

Anyone who has visited Bali is struck by the number of ceremonies performed every day. From the thrice-daily canang sari – small baskets of rice, flowers and incense offered to the gods in gratitude for the richness of life, to full-scale temple ceremonies, weddings and cremations. It is an inescapable part of Balinese culture, woven into the very fabric of society, and of Bali life itself.

Those who live in Bali – and who employ Balinese staff – will also know that these essential rituals take priority over almost all other day-to-day activities, including work. Some house staff and employees have developed enough of a work ethic to give their employers at least some notice of forthcoming absences. However, many don’t, either not showing up for work at all, or calling two minutes before the work day starts with the catch-all excuse, “Sorry, family ceremony today.” Or, “Can not work today, grandmother cremation …”

Sometimes it’s even true. But even if one possesses the gullibility of a brand-new tourist and the compassion of Mother Teresa, it’s still hard to remain a bastion of understanding when a ‘bereaved’ staff member’s mother has supposedly died for the third time since they started working for you.

But discounting the inevitable opportunistic days off, the legitimate ceremonies which place constant demands on the Balinese are frequent, time-consuming and expensive. A recent report from Al Jazeera claimed that Balinese were now spending one third of their income on ceremonies. In a video clip about this trend, Bali’s Governor Made Mangku Pastika expressed concern about the financial load on families who were already close to the minimum wage.

As reported in The Jakarta Post, Pastika went even further in an address to a Balinese Hindu organisation on Christmas Day, claiming that, unlike some other religions whose actions concentrated on “helping the poor, improving education and providing healthcare to the disadvantaged”, Balinese Hindus spent most of their energy on the ritualistic elements of their religion. He is reported to have said that they were so fixated on offerings to the gods and to natural forces that they were neglecting their fellow human beings.

Strong words. Without entering into a debate about the expression of any particular religion, it is clear that these ceremonies do take up a lot of participants’ time and money, and that they do tend to take priority over mundane aspects such as work. The impact on family finances, on their workplace’s profitability, and therefore on the broader Bali economy are undeniable.

Given Governor Pastika’s views, it was somewhat of a shock to read in the paper that he has just signed off on eighteen new religious holidays for Bali. These new local holidays are “to allow Hindus to perform their various religious activities,” according to I Ketut Teneng, a spokesman for the provincial government. These are in addition to the thirteen existing regional holidays and the five official joint leave days. So the Bali workforce now has 36 official days off – twice that existed previously. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are many additional ceremonies that are not on the official calendar, but equally important. Many Balinese homes feature a small temple – and each temple has an Odalan ceremony which is held on the anniversary of its consecration. An ‘anniversary’ in Bali is not necessarily held annually. The Wuku calendar system here may well mean a celebration occurs every 210 days. In addition, local villages and community areas have their own temples as well, and obligations exist to honour festivals for these too. Depending on the size and importance of the temple, each festival can continue for between one and eleven days.

And that’s not all. There are about a dozen life and death rites to be performed for every individual during their allotted span on earth, some of which start even before birth. Some rituals are relatively quick, but others, like the Three Month Ceremony, which marks the the occasion when a baby touches the ground for the first time, can be protracted affairs with many celebrants. Puberty rites and tooth filings are still carried out by some castes, and of course weddings and funerals involve lengthy celebrations. Then, every 35 days, there may be ‘honour days’ for things made of metal, fruit trees, domestic animals, shadow puppets, dance paraphernalia and literature.

In total, ‘non-working’ days in Bali now probably number close to two months of the year, if not more. I am starting to wonder if the Bali economy can afford it. While it is easy for politicians to double the number of official holidays with the stroke of a pen, the question of how employers will be affected seems to have been ignored.

If you are a foreigner with staff, either domestic or business, the answer is simple. You will, as always, be expected to pay normal wages despite another 18 days’ loss of productivity. After all, who in their right mind would refuse to allow time off for Balinese religious and cultural imperatives? The problem is, some of the expat rumblings I have heard suggest that the simplest solution is to dispense with the services of Balinese altogether and employ locals from elsewhere in the archipelago. This, naturally, would not be good for Bali, but it could well be be a logical consequence of arbitrarily doubling the number of holidays.

Then, of course, there is the local employer reaction, which tends to be a lot more pragmatic. One Balinese restaurant owner, when asked how the new holidays would affect his business, was quite blunt. “It’s bullshit,” he said. “My staff aren’t getting them. I can’t afford it.”

There you go. It will be interesting how this one plays out.