Behind the smiles of Bali

FORMER Herald editor BRIAN MITCHELL visited Bali with his family for the first time a few weeks ago. While there he became increasingly edgy about the glaring inequality between the tourists and locals. Unable to sleep one night he broke out the iPad at 2am and this is what he wrote.

WE are four days into a six-day holiday and what had started as a quiet unease has become my principal focus: the pittance Balinese people are paid for working extraordinarily hard, and their inability to enjoy even a taste of the holiday lifestyle they provide foreigners.

Tourism underpins Bali’s economy and the people here go out of their way to ensure the holiday experience is a happy one, but I wonder whether cheap and cheerful tourism, where operators seek to outdo each other with severely discounted accommodation packages and happy hour liquor, is restraining the Balinese from developing a more sustainable and diverse economy.

Behind the ever-present smiles I detect sadness and, sometimes, resentment. And with good reason.

Our driver (I’ll call him Madé—Hindu for second son) works for a company that pays him 500,000 rupiah a week as a wage. That’s about $50. In addition, Madé earns 10 per cent commission on fares. So of the 500,000 rupiah we’d paid for a full day’s driving, he took home to his wife and six-year-old son 50,000—about $5. He says in a good week he can expect to supplement his wage with 150,000 rupiah in commissions and about the same again in tips—so wages, tips and commission comes to $80, in a good week.

Half Madé’s day was spent waiting by the car while we strolled through villages and admired the work of artisans paid similar peanut wages, or less, for intricate handiwork that takes years to master. Our drinks at lunch time cost us more than Madé made that day. He ate his packed lunch of rice and vegetables in the car, having refused our offer to sit with us.

My nosy questions about pay for workers in Bali made Madé a little uncomfortable at first, and it was only after we’d spent a couple of days together, and after a corrupt policeman demanded a bribe at a bogus traffic stop, that he really opened up.

“Why they pull me over?” he grumbles, getting back into the car 50,000 rupiah lighter. “I have all my licences and even wearing my seatbelt. He tell me, Mr Bron, he want 80,000 rupiah so two polisi can go to lunch. I argue down to 50,000.”

My attempt to lighten the mood by saying that in Australia our traffic cameras and speed traps cost us more cut little ice.

“That money go to government, not corrupt polisi Mr Bron. It not good.”


If Madé hadn’t paid the bribe his documents would have been seized, disabling his ability to earn a living: The money demanded by the policeman meant Madé had effectively worked all day for nothing.

“Your employer doesn’t cover it?” my wife asks, aghast: “He no care, my car for the day, I pay,” he sighs.

But in the end I pay, adding the cost to the 250,000 rupiah tip I give Madé for his hot day’s work, which had included de facto tour guide duties and entertaining our 5-year-old, whose unceasing questions and yabbering would test the patience of the Dalai Lama, but could not defeat Madé.

Earlier, when I’d asked Madé whether Balinese people ever get to enjoy the holiday lifestyle of their own island he laughs: “No, Mr Bron. Work too hard, all the time, all the time. Work.”

Anyone who takes the time to look can see the truth of it. The only Balinese you’ll see on a beach or by a pool are those who serve you drinks, hand you a towel, massage your feet or look after your kids. Smiles everywhere, but also what seems to be a bone weariness.

Anyone who’s visited the US to be served almost exclusively by African-Americans and Hispanic people may notice uncomfortable similarities: It may be the 21st century but the darker your skin, the more likely you’ll still be serving someone white.

Balinese workers are everywhere: Four shop assistants for every customer, drivers, masseuses, gardeners, security guards—cheap labour means lots of jobs, but at subsistence level. Life is work. I couldn’t help but think is this a glimpse of Australia’s future if we continue to pursue casualisation and drive down or eliminate penalty rates in hospitality?

Full employment, but at what cost?

My wife, taking a cue from my questions to Madé, took the opportunity to interrogate her young masseuse. Suhalla (name changed) is 31 but looks 21 and says she has four children, one of whom is no longer here (the local custom is to include dead children in the family tally, and infant mortality is stubbornly high). Suhalla’s husband works at another hotel, doing laundry.

Suhalla earns 10 per cent commission, so she gets 60,000 rupiah for every 90-minute massage (resort massages are more expensive than street vendors’, so the jobs are highly sought after as they have more prestige and pay better).

Suhalla’s money is better than Madé’s but is intensely physical and still what any reasonable person would consider to be sweatshop rates.

It takes Suhalla and her husband an hour a day to get to work—like most Balinese they commute by motor scooter from suburbs that few tourists see or seek out. Suhalla’s widowed mother, who lives with the family of five in their two-bedroom house, cares for the children.

If you think “the wages are low but so are the prices” think again. A 35,000 rupiah ($3.50) satay lunch was incredibly cheap by Australian standards but it would have gobbled up more than a third of Madé’s daily wage. For an Australian earning $1000 a week that’s like spending $70 on a lunch you’d expect to pay $9 for in Australia.

Happy hour buckets of cocktail grog cost 40,000 rupiah—$4—ridiculously cheap by our standards, but getting hammered on anything but the cheapest rice wine or Bintang beer is out of the question for Balinese.

When you add costs like education—no state schools, they’re all fee-paid costing at least AUD$400 a year—and health (no free doctors, no Medicare-style insurance and few can afford private cover) you can see how difficult life is for the people whose job it is to smile and serve every day of their working lives. University is a dream for all but the wealthy and a tiny minority who secure rare academic scholarships.

Most Balinese leave school at 17 and head straight into hospitality, retail or labouring. Just 10 per cent will leave the island to try their luck in Jakarta and very few will ever travel for leisure.

And so we come to haggling: I know it is part of the culture but it is distasteful to me to haggle over a price that to me means $1 or $2 but to the person at the other end of the transaction represents a great deal more.

I bought a kite in Ubud, handmade on the premises. No machinery—hand-crafted and painted. Madé said I should be able to get it for 60,000 rupiah ($6). The seller quoted 150,000, clearly expecting a fierce haggle. I half-heartedly beat him down to 120,000 but because I didn’t have any smaller notes gave him the 150,000 and told him to keep the change. He might think I’m a western sucker who paid twice what he was willing to sell for, but if the profit margin I provided means he can afford to sell a kite to a Balinese kid for less, then well and good. I got a beautiful, hand-crafted kite for 15 bucks. Bargain.

Foreign investment

As we drive through Denpasar on the way back to our Kuta beachside resort, Madé, following my prompting about the economy and jobs, expresses some modest but out-of-character resentment at the high level of foreign investment that is pushing up prices, making it harder for Balinese people to afford to own property, start their own businesses and master their own destinies. However, he also remains deeply appreciative of tourism for giving him a livelihood, however modest, and seems genuinely fond of Australians.

“After the bombing, no work for four years, no tourists, very bad, Mr Bron,” he says, shaking his head at the memory. The bombing continues to resonate deeply in this peaceful place.

Madé’s hope is to buy his own vehicle—the Suzuki people-mover he’d ferried us around in sells for about 90 million rupiah ($9000). To him that’s 180 weeks of wages (equivalent to a $180,000 vehicle for an Australian on $1000 a week). It’s a mammoth goal, a life-changing undertaking for the price to us of a second-hand bomb.

Enterprising, engaging, unfailingly accommodating, knowledgable and with very good English, resentful of but resigned to living with corruption and serving the rich while dining on scraps cast from our table, Madé sums up our first Balinese experience.

It’s an unsettling feeling to enjoy being here and taking advantage of the cheap eats, drinks and digs while knowing the Balinese are paying for it. But if I was honest with myself, if the place wasn’t so cheap I probably wouldn’t have booked the holiday. So am I part of the problem, the solution, or a bit of both?

Clearly, tourism must continue but it’s my sincere hope that Australians stop seeing Bali as somewhere to screw down prices: Some Aussies seem to take perverse delight in competing to be the world’s best haggler and consider you an idiot if you pay 40,000 rupiah when you can pay just 35,000 (a difference of 50c).

Instead, I hope we work to strengthen our bond with Bali, one that’s now forged in blood. There’s a deep affection for us here and we should nurture it by doing what we can to be generous in both deed and spirit.

Tip generously and often. Don’t tip 10,000 rupiah when you can tip 50,000. Haggle ferociously but with good humour—and then invite them to keep the change. Go up to the gardeners, cooks and cleaners and thank them with a generous tip for the amazing job they do, as they’re so often overlooked. Be happy to pay more for hand-crafted jewellery, textiles and carvings. Appreciate the talent and time that went into them.

Help nurture a new relationship between Australia and Bali. One that says we are a generous people, a good neighbour, and a better friend.


61 responses to “Behind the smiles of Bali

  1. Well said.
    I went to Bali this year for the first time. And I will be going back again next year.
    Not for the cheapness so much, but for the beautiful island and people.
    We hired a driver exclusively for our 23 days. So by the end his family and ours were extremely close.
    We tipped everyone big, and didn’t accept change, a win win! Money in their pocket (not the bosses) and we still got a bargain.
    The Balinese are a beautiful, hard working people.

  2. I enjoyed reading your article it is interesting that 2 years later little has changed in regards to wages and workload. I will be tipping the staff when I leave my resort today also leaving behind two brand new pairs of shoes ( bought in Oz because on sale – but dont quite fit) in the trust they will be useful to someone. Your article has made me reflect on my australian attitude and expectations for wants and needs, good salary, big home, nice holidays. The part of Bali that I am disappointed in the most is the attitude to rubbish, everywhere – beaches, creeks, streets I found myself picking up plastic bags, bottles etc but then no bins to put in, made my own roadside monuments. The government needs to educate and deliver better services or there wont be tourism at all in Bali because it will be one giant rubbish tip – then what will the lovely locals do?

  3. This was an amazing read from a UK citizen! I too felt unnerved about their low incomes and constant working, even the price of water for them is expensive! We are tipping at every available opportunity with the hope of easing the pressure of financial living at least for one day!

    Thank you for a truly amazing read.

  4. I’ve just come back from Bali and was struck with the same unease. I really feel your article and the place it’s coming from. I work as a carpenter here in Australia and was really touch by the construction workers In Bali and it’s not hard to see that there rate would not be good. Well done on a really great article.

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