By Nicola Bullard
You can almost taste the hardship and toil of Kurstina and Victor Sirigar’s lives – and it’s the taste of sweat and tears, a taste all the more bitter because of their quiet dignity and strength.

Sitting on a woven mat in their tiny two-roomed concrete house on the outskirts of industrial Jakarta, Kurstina and Victor personify the dreams, disappointments and dilemmas of Indonesia. The house has no running water, the toilet is shared with ten other families, and their landlord provides just four hours of electricity at night. For this, Victor pays a quarter of his wages to the people who own the big houses on the main road.

Kurstina left Central Java when she was 18, with only her sewing skills. She didn’t have enough money to start her own business, and her family didn’t have enough land to support her, so work at one of the hundreds of textile factories springing up in the far-flung edges of greater Jakarta was the only choice.

Victor, a senior high school graduate, had a secure warehouse job in his home province of Aceh, but left to “see the city of Indonesia” after hearing stories from a military friend. But, without contacts and money, he was unable to find a good job. He now works in a thread-spinning factory and “Jakarta is a disappointment”. But Acehans are proud and he will not go back home “as long as we are surviving”.

“If we go back to Aceh, we are poor. All my friends are successful, they grow cloves, spices, rice. They have problems, such as insects or drought, but here the problems are worse. I cannot manage the situation.”

Before the economic collapse Kurstina and Victor and their two children had a future. They were saving money, visiting their families, and they could afford to think about the quality of the food they ate. Now, they eat to fill their stomachs. Their take home pay has dropped dramatically in the past six months as factory orders slow, overtime disappears and working days are cut. In Victor’s factory, their jobs depend on winning new contracts every three months, which means that the workers are pushed to the limit.

Neither Kurstina nor Victor are optimistic about their future, yet they are well informed and opinionated about current political and economic events.

Kurstina, who with twelve other women is taking a case against her employer to the Office of Manpower, favours an immediate election to create a clean government. “We’ve heard from many people that the new [Habibie] government is still corrupt. We need to get rid of them all to stop the KKN [the common Indonesian acronym for cronyism, corruption and nepotism]. Everyone knows about this – it is discussed by everyone, everywhere.”

Her husband is more cautious, saying that the economic problems need to be solved first and in any case, it takes some time to make election laws.

Before the crisis, there was plenty of overtime to supplement Victor and Kurstina’s miserable pay. Not that they had a choice, says Kurstina “There was overtime everyday, whether we liked it or not.” And although she could almost double her wages by working from 7.30am to midnight six days a week it eventually became too much. Along with twelve other women, Kurstina demanded better conditions such as menstruation leave, pay according to government regulations and proper meal breaks. Although they are supported by the local workers’ rights and legal aid centre, the case is still caught up in the administrative system. Meanwhile, Kurstina has been moved to the a new section. “In the beginning, we got strong support from our friends, but this has changed because the managers started to tell everyone that we were trouble-makers. And now, people are scared to lose their jobs.”

In the past three months one fifth of the workers have left – from 500 to 400. Some were told that their ‘performance’ was bad, which according to the law saves the employer the bother of compensation. Others left because conditions are so terrible.

Before the crisis Victor’s take home pay (excluding overtime) was a minimum of R172,000 a month – about US$65. He still earns about the same, but there is no overtime and at the current rate it’s only about $15 a month. Although Kurstina’s pay doubles the family income, food prices have shot up: a chicken, once R4,000 is now R13,000; eggs from R2,100 to R5,400 per kilo; rice almost double to R1,500 a kilo and cooking oil an astounding R1,600 to R6,000 a kilo.

Prices have risen for various reasons: chicken is now out-of-reach because producers depend heavily on imported feed and medicines; rice is expensive due to drought-induced shortages and suspected hoarding and racketeering. The hike in cooking oil prices, though, is an interesting example of the perversity of the free market and the IMF: one of the 50 items in the April 1998 IMF agreement lifted export quotas on palm oil. Producers can now sell oil to the lucrative Singapore market, but this has caused local shortages and pushed up prices.

Other staples such as fish, sugar and vegetables have more than doubled in price. For a time there was food shortage, even in the outer suburbs of industrial Jakarta but this has passed – at least for now. Before the crisis, the family’s daily food bill was about R7,000. Now it’s R9,000, almost 30 per cent more, and kept minimal by sacrificing quality and variety. Milk and chicken have disappeared from the diet completely. In addition, they pay about 10,000 a month for their children’s schooling, 40,000 in rent. Transport, clothes, health needs and households needs are extra. Their savings are gone.

Kurstina and Victor’s situation is typical of millions of Indonesians. The past twenty years of growth promised of a better future for everyone, and to be sure there were improvements. Millions of young Indonesians are better educated, healthier and can look forward to a longer life than any previous generation. Social welfare and stability was maintained through a combination of subsidies, social services, subtle social control, a pervasive political system and an ever-present, although shadowy, military presence.

Happily, the fruits of education are abundant. Everyone has an opinion about the new government, the economic crisis, the IMF, the future. Being in Jakarta two weeks after Soeharto’s resignation was like walking the streets of a newly liberated zone. But, Indonesia’s ‘Prague Spring’ may also be short-lived. For families like the Sirigars, the immediate demands of children, work, food, land, medicines and education are their overwhelming concerns: for them the choice between political change and economic security is impossible – they want, and need, both. However, in the short-term, they cannot have both.

The conundrum for Indonesia is that it must achieve two things simultaneously: stability and reform. But these objectives are totally incompatible because Indonesia’s political, social and economic institutions are both weak and inflexible.

Opposition leaders, journalists and political commentators offer the same divided opinion as Victor and Kurstina – for some ‘reformasi total’ must be pursued, while others urge ‘stability’ and a slow, steady approach. The choice is invidious, but historians will remember that 32 years ago, the then-young general Soeharto advocated the second option after he ousted Indonesia’s founding father Soekarno in a similarly bloodless coup. Thirty two years later, Indonesia has neither stability nor reform.

* Nicola Bullard is a senior associate of Focus on the Global South, and was the author, with Walden Bello and Kamal Malhotra of the report ‘Taming the Tigers: the IMF and the Asian Crisis’.