Indonesians left to pick up the pieces; “I want to become smart, I want to make my parents proud. I want to take them on the Hajj.”

March 19, 2013 8:36 am

Indonesians left to pick up the pieces

By Ben Bland in Bantar Gebang


Rastinah lives in the midst of Indonesia’s decade-long economic boom, without being part of it.

Along with her husband and five children, the 40-year-old ekes out a living as a scavenger at the vast Bantar Gebang landfill site on the outskirts of Jakarta, scouring a mountain of trash every day to find material that she can sell for recycling.

Even in a good month, her family rarely earns more than $180. So, when it costs about Rp30,000 ($3) for a very basic family meal, life is a struggle.

“It’s barely enough for food, sometimes it’s not enough,” she says as she picks plastic bags from the trash heap, a foul stench in the air and the midday sun beating down, the only shade provided by a Komatsu digger operating perilously close by.

Mrs Rastinah and her family are among the tens of millions of people who have been left behind as Indonesia’s economy has taken off on the back of a fast-growing middle class and Indonesia’s plentiful natural resources.

Although poverty rates have declined, inequality has risen and nearly half of the population still live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

About 1,500 families live and work at Bantar Gebang – cooking, washing and even going to school in the middle of one of Asia’s biggest landfill sites. Many have moved there from desperately poor parts of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, where there are even fewer opportunities.

Up to a thousand rubbish trucks come to Bantar Gebang, 20km east of the Indonesian capital, every day, depositing 5,000-6,000 tonnes of waste. And the more trash there is, the more can be recycled.

Godang Tua Jaya, the operating company, says the trash pickers are not officially allowed to work there for safety reasons but that it does not want to deprive them of their livelihood by driving them away.

Approximately 60 per cent of Indonesia’s labour force still work in the informal sector, picking trash like Mrs Rastinah, driving motorbike taxis or doing other odd jobs with low pay, no benefits and no job security.

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, is struggling to create the new jobs necessary to absorb the expanding workforce, which is growing by 1.5m people a year. Youth unemployment is higher than in other developing Asian nations.

The government has made the creation of jobs a key priority but a shortage of well-trained workers and a lack of legal certainty has held back the pace of investment.

“Job creation is lagging behind economic growth,” says Peter van Rooij, the director of the International Labour Organisation’s Indonesia office. “Within Indonesia, there are big differences in economic growth rates and the levels of job creation.”

Another major problem is child labour, with 1.5m children under 15 still engaged in full-time work, albeit down from about 2.5m in the 1990s.

At the primary school in Bantar Gebang, one in three pupils already work in the dump after school and many will end up picking trash full time within a few years.

Many families don’t understand the importance of education and consider their kids as an asset they can use to earn money for the family

– Nasrudin Mu’anis, headmaster at a primary school

Only 40 per cent of pupils reach the sixth grade, according to Nasrudin Mu’anis, the headmaster, with most parents sending their children to work on the dump once they have attained some basic reading and writing skills.

“Many families don’t understand the importance of education and consider their kids as an asset they can use to earn money for the family,” he says.

The children’s health is also endangered. Almost all of them suffer from intestinal worms and skin infections, respiratory infections and tuberculosis are widespread, says Mr Mu’anis.

Despite the grim surroundings, Mrs Rastinah’s 11-year-old son Wariko is hopeful as he walks to school with his younger sister Carmini.

“I want to become smart, I want to make my parents proud,” he says. “I want to take them on the Hajj.”

The Indonesian dream – children will lead a better life than their parents – is not yet out of reach for him, so long as his family can find a way to keep him in education.

“I didn’t go to school because I had to help my parents,” says Mrs Rastinah. “We want Wariko to be a smart kid, to have knowledge, to take care of his parents, to get a good job. Not like his parents, not like his mum who works in this place.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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