Saturday, April 29, 2006

Majority of Jakarta’s middle class families employ at least one domestic servant. For few hundred thousands Indonesian Rupiahs monthly (US$40-100 + food) servants cook meals, wash dirty dishes, clean the messy house or apartment, wash and iron dirty clothes, take care of kids while parents are away etc., the list goes long. Overall they save their employers lots of time which they can spend in a better way. Due to the nature of their work, domestic servants are also those trusted the most. They are the one with easy access to our food, kids and our property and are almost like member of the family. But, can we trust them as much as our family?

Most expatriates living in Indonesia used to do the house work themselves. This is why they quickly tend to notice and truly enjoy the benefit of employing domestic servants. It is something new, very enjoyable and unfortunately very addictive. After several years of living in Indonesia life without maid becomes difficult. Lack of domestic servant is actually one of the most common elements of Indonesia missed by expatriates returning home. Suddenly, after few years of being lazy again they have to do all the housework by themselves. It actually gets shocking to this point for some, that they ask their Indonesian maids to join them.

The benefit of having maids (called here “pembantu”) or drivers (“sopir”) is so great for an average expatriate, that they often tend to forget about the risks involved. As previously mentioned domestic servants are almost like member of our family as they have very easy access to food, our children and our property, definitely highly trusted individuals. But, how did they get to this position? Well, in fact most families employ their domestic servants fairly quickly and very irresponsibly. Usually expatriates get their housekeepers by asking around, getting some recommendations and after little bargaining hire the person.

The result as I’ve learnt can be often very surprising.

Early experiences (if this article sounds boring skip this chapter)

I employed several house keepers over the period of living in Indonesia. The first two house keepers were not hired by my employer, thus I had not much to do. I think they were relatively good. The next one I hired myself when I moved from house to apartment. She was from Java and had a children and husband. I found here thanks to the recommendation of my friend living in the same apartment complex. Since there was not much work at my place, she used to come once a day to clean the apartment. She continued to work for me for about 6 months and then she decided to go back to her village – as far as I remember she was expecting a baby. Overall I had no problem with her and the apartment was always well maintained. In fact I’ve even rarely seen her as she had the copy of the apartment key and we’ve met only on the salary day.

My next maid was recommended by security guard at the apartment. He vouched for her and asked me to let him know if I’d ever have any problem. This maid also came once a week except weekends and as previous maid she didn’t have much work. Two hours a day and everything was done – I paid Rp400K (~40$) monthly which considering that she had to work only two hours a day was very high, if compared to the local standards. As my friend was looking for a maid I recommended her to him and she started to work for both of us, making pretty decent income I believe.

Then I decided to move to my new apartment and my house keeper started to work full-time for my friend and take care of his kids.

It would be long story so I’ll just briefly mention that sometime later I got married and my wife moved to my apartment. Since there were two of us living here, it added some housework, and since both of us are pretty busy working, we decided to get some house keeper.

Mba Sri (here it gets interesting)

Mba Sri was a house keeper at my wife’s home. She was working there for only six months, as the previous maid got some rich sailor as her boyfriend – actually my wife’s uncle - and she moved to his place and proudly quit her maid position. Her replacement was Mba Sri, woman around 40 who was recommended by our driver. Mba Sri was a bit overweight Javanese lady who dragged her little son everywhere. The kid was actually really something, but I’ll leave it for another story. Anyway, as we decided to get maid we asked her to come once or twice a week (Saturday and Sunday) for few hours and clean our apartment. To make it easier for her we asked our driver to pick her up and drop her back, plus we paid her Rp300K (~30$) on top of her current salary, which increased her earning to more than double of an average maid’s salary. As expected she always came with her kid, who definitely enjoyed that as he was getting some sweets and some enjoyable stuff such as drawing something with colour pens. One Sunday he seem to enjoy drawing a lot so I gave him some blue marker to draw and after he could keep it to himself. His mother was cleaning the floor and after my driver took all of them home.

Well, frankly I must say I didn’t like Mba Sri since the first day I met her. The kid was funny, but I had rather negative feeling about his mother – actually for no specific reason, there was just something wrong in her.

Where is my mobile phone?

I used Telkom Flexi for internet connection and sometimes to make a phone call. The phone is Nokia 6585 and in fact it is replacement for the original Nokia 6585 that I’ve bought. The phone I’ve bough was stolen from an organiser of charity event that I supported in many ways, which also included providing my CDMA phone for the event information line. I got Nokia 6585 owned by event organiser as the replacement for the one which was stolen from him. Anyway, one Saturday I ran out of credits (ind. “pulsa”) and left my phone on the desk. I bought new credits (ind. “pulsa”) on Monday and wanted to reload my phone and surprisingly couldn’t find it. Half an hour of searching and still nothing, thus I decided to call it and find it when it rings. I called. The phone was on but no ringing around and suddenly something surprising happened.

Some guy: “Halo?”

Me: “Eeeeee … Halo?”
Some guy: “Ini Siapa?” (eng. “Who’s that”);
Me: “Eeeeee?! Huh?! Ini Marek? Ini numor berapa. Ini siapa?” (“This is Marek. Which number is that?”)
Some guy: “Saya tidak tahu. Itu bukan telepon punya Saya.” (eng. “I don’t know. This is not my phone.”)
Me: “Ya?” (eng. “Yes?”)
Some guy: “Saya di rumah Mba Sri. Mau bicara dengan siapa?” (eng. “I’m at Mrs. Sri house. Who do you want to talk to?”)
Me: “Itu hand phone saya. Kenapa anda punya telepon saya?”. (eng. “This is my mobile phone. Why have you got my phone?”)
Some guy: “Tidak tahu. Saya perlu tanya dulu.” (eng. “I don’t know. I need to ask first.”)

The guy disconnected and 15 minutes later the phone was off.

Well, I checked the number on my phone display and everything was correct, it was a phone number of my Telkom Flexi phone. Surprisingly, this guy was in possession of my mobile phone! But wait, he said “Saya di rumah Mba Sri.”, this name sounds familiar. I called my wife and asked about the name of our maid, so my wife answered “Mba Sri”. Well, this definitely was name of my maid who was here yesterday with her kid cleaning our apartment! Dot to dot and I believed I had a good idea of where my phone could be and how it got there.

I explained all this to my wife. She called her mother and sister, explained everything and asked to talk to the maid when she comes.

“It is always the best policy to speak the truth--unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.” - Jerome K. Jerome

When Mba Sri came to my wife’s house her sister immediately asked where the mobile phone is. Mba Sri surprised asked which mobile phone and later assured that she doesn’t know anything about the missing mobile phone. The conversation lasted for several hours and included my wife’s mother and sister and crying Mba Sri. When we said to Mba Sri that we will call Police, she said to do so as she is innocent. Anyway, to make it short I’ll just summarise the top statements of Mba Sri:
  • “I swear to my husband's life that I didn’t steal any mobile phone”;
  • “You rich people accuse me poor servant of stealing. I would never steal anything. I’m poor but not a thief”;
  • “You people are cruel. I want to tell this to Marek. Please ask him to come, I want to tell him how cruel he is to accuse me poor innocent servant of stealing”;
Right, this is so convincing that most of you already think I’m the pure evil expatriate who abuses his domestic servants. Because of me poor Mba Sri was sitting there crying with her kid also crying and assuring everyone that she is innocent. In fact this was convincing to this extent that my wife’s mother was already thinking I’m cruel and I accuse this poor maid of stealing while she is innocent. My sister in law also started to think the same about me. Moreover, my wife started to question if I really had my mobile phone on the desk or maybe I’ve lost it somewhere. Things were getting bit out of control and I started to get upset with everyone around, thus I decided it would be better to deal with Indonesia's famed Police.

The Police

Fortunately, there was one fact which assured me that I was right. Someone on the phone did say that the phone was at Mba Sri’s house. This just couldn’t be a coincidence and even if almost everyone was against me I knew I was right. She was the only one who could have stolen the mobile phone as there was no one else at the apartment. Moreover, my driver added credibility to my story by saying that Mba Sri once tried to sell a mobile phone to him explaining that she had found it on the street.

All this looked rather feasible so I hoped Police officers will believe in my story. I went to the Police station accompanied by my wife and my driver. After short description of the problem to two police officers, they said it would be best to talk to Mba Sri or maybe visit her house first and see if someone remembers the mobile phone. I must say that since beginning the Police officers were very professional and helpful – they didn’t even ask for any payment, really.

Accompanied by two police officers we went to her house. Doors were shut, lights were off etc., so we went to my wife’s house and meet Mba Sri there as she continued to cry and assure my wife’s mother that she is innocent. When we arrived and she noticed us walking with two police officers she started to look bit panicked. She immediately stopped crying and in fact she got into pretty positive mood, even laughed a bit. When questioned by police officer she assured that she didn’t take the phone. She repeated this many times and said that I’m wrong, that I’ve lost my mobile phone sometimes - not true - and she didn’t take it.

As someone who does not understand everything she says I was paying more attention to her face expressions rather than words and in my feeling she was clearly lying. Whatever she said was not convincing to me at all.

The best part of the story starts.

When my wife explained that her position is very weak as there was nobody else at home, just us, things started to change. Also, my wife explained about the phone call and that we can get location of the mobile phone and if it is in the area of her house she will go to jail. We also said that if she gives back the phone, we will not press any charges against her. If not, she will be arrested tomorrow. After hearing this she suddenly started to talk in a bit different way.

- “Pak Marek must have put his phone somewhere at the apartment and forgot. I am sure it is in his bag or somewhere. Let me go to the apartment and find it”;

Huh? I said to my wife “This is totally ridiculous! Does she think I’m an idiot?” However, my wife said that it seems she wants to return the phone. After short discussion we agreed to this scenario as my wife started to believe that she wants to return the phone pretending that I’ve put it somewhere at the apartment and forgot where. After this discussion we went back with Police officers to the police station. On the way police officers told us that after three minutes of discussion they were already sure she was a liar. They investigated number of criminals and it was really obvious when talking with her that she was the theft.

Anyway, now it gets even better. Half an hour later Mba Sri calls my wife’s sister and says “The mobile phone was found”. “I called the number and some rubbish man answered and said he has found it among rubbish! I already have this phone at my place and I’ll return it tomorrow.”

Can you believe this?! The best thing was that SHE DIDN’T KNOW THE PHONE NUMBER OF THAT MOBILE PHONE. Plus, there was another thing that really knocked me down. She asked some money from us for the rubbish man as a gratitude for his kindness of returning the mobile phone. Can you imagine? We just caught her on stealing mobile phone and she wants to get some money to return it! Unbelievable! All this after we treated her extremely well, gave lots of stuff to her kid etc. and paid her a very high salary.

I got my phone back next day. The power button and Infra Red sensor were all scratched as they tried to switch it off and didn’t know how. We were all totally shocked for a few days. It was just unbelievable that someone we trusted, someone we treated so well could be such a liar and a theft and most of all lie to us in such a convincing way. We have also found out that she had stolen not only the mobile phone but also some of my wife’s clothes.

Shocking, isn’t it? Anyway, the positive meaning of this story is to learn that we can actually count on the local policeman. They can be very helpful and actually solve our problem. However, if you are an expatriate just remember to consider they extremely low salary and also remember about the policeman day. This way you will assure they will be maximum helpful to you, not the criminals.

Yes, I’ll do the same thing again, give you some useful advice, sorry just can’t resist. If you’re the kind that hates advices just skip this part:

  • Find your house keepers by recommendation, not by newspaper advertisement. The best people to ask are apartment security guards, security guard in nearby shop or apartment, your friends etc. However, keep the concept of ‘segregation of duties’, thus if you live in a house and have a security guard for the night, I’d rather advice you to ask the security guard at the housing complex or nearby house; otherwise you may end up being robbed by your security guard and house keeper working together – this happens often in Jakarta;
  • Beware of the most common trick used by house keepers, I call it “hide and seek”. House keeper simply put some of your belongings in a place that you most likely won’t check. Then she waits few weeks or even a month and check if you ask about the missing thing or found it by yourself. If you didn’t, she just takes it. If within few weeks you suddenly ask about it, she can still tell you that she’ll try to find it and then she just says she has found it (in that place). By observing how frustrated you are trying to find it she will evaluate if she keeps the thing or returns it;
  • Keep photo copy of your house keeper documents and at best know where she lives – try to verify this from time to time, as house keepers tend to move often. This will be extremely useful in case you need to deal with police;
  • Know where your house keeper family lives;
  • When you hire new house keeper, tell her that the previous one was arrested by police for stealing. Put on your desk some photos of you and police officers;
  • Trusted housekeeper will be most likely skinny, shy and speak quietly. The least trusted will be most likely loud and arrogant, overweight who talks often about money or her poor financial situation;
  • Avoid hiring domestic servants when: they are in debt, are in very difficult financial situation – this may sound cruel to some, but one of the major reasons for stealing is the financial pressure. Also when in general they don’t like rich people or expatriates (if you’re expatriate) or your ethnic group – this could give them motive to steal;
  • Pay your domestic servants fair and on time; consider supporting education of their children;
If you know some other stories or advice, just post it in comments. I myself heard many stories about car stolen by drivers, anyone could write more about this?

PS1: I know this story sounds like a top quality “Sinetron” (Indonesian soap opera) thus I’d like to remind that I reserve all rights to it. PS2: Should I order coffin for her husband?

Copyright © 2006 Marek Bialoglowy. All Rights Reserved.

5 comments:

Willy Ekasalim said...

Hi Marek interesting tale about Mba Sri there :)... yes I got an interesting story too. It happens to my Aunt when she was queueing for something (i forgot what it is...). She put her mobile phone in one of her bag's outside pocket (it can be seen from outside clearly, and surely inviting someone to stole it). Then there is an old lady queueing behind her who's trying to sneak her hand and took the mobile phone. My Aunt realize something wasn't right and she turn back. The old lady already holding the mobile phone, and she said "I didn't took it" (?? the mobile phone is already in her hand, and she said she didn't took it ??), then the old lady give the mobile phone because she scared my auntie will scream in the crowd... well that's it cheers ^^...

Marek Bialoglowy said...

Hi Willy. Surprisingly the elderly lady haven’t blamed it on "hantu" (ghost) or "hypnosis", which is pretty good excuse down here hehe. "It was a ghost of my dead husband who told me to steal the mobile phone. It wasn't me!". Sounds credible, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Don't steal! Government hates competition - Anonymous

Maya said...

When I was growing up in Indonesia (it continues until now with my sisters who live there), we used to have one or two maids if we were lucky, but they never stayed long (except maybe one or two) because of different incidents and combinations of stealing, lying, sickness, etc. etc. Many stories that I don't remember exactly the details anymore. It was always a risk to take when you search for a helper...it happens in the U.S. and other developed countries too though, that we shouldn't trust anybody esp. if we're going to give them full trust in our private space. Your suggestive list is helpful definitely, Marek, and for those who are new to this...better be aware than sorry. Treat it like when you're looking for a best friend, how about that? I know it takes time, so when we're in rush...take that risk with precautions.

I hope you feel ok now...I'm still amazed how expats 'survive' living in Indonesia ;-)

Btw, are you there by choice?

Anonymous said...

its like a cerpen (short story) hehehe

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