Leftover Learning: Peer-Coaching for Indonesian Domestic Workers

Picture3I interviewed Nanny Tini, the “Beverly Hills Nanny,” a couple years ago. This time she introduced me to a few friends. 

TWO neatly-dressed children frolic in a pile of empty coffee sachets and laundry detergent pouches.

Maids, cooks, nannies and a few gardeners and drivers remove their shoes and sit down on plastic sheets in a shady spot outside the entrance to the Jakarta zoo.

Some people contribute additional “trash” to the heap and everyone receives refreshments – an assortment of holiday cakes and pastries.Using scissors, Ninik, a mother of two from Malang, East Java, demonstrates how to cut open a cat food package, bringing it one step closer to becoming a sassy handbag with a repeating cat pattern.

Some people watch while others chat. A battery-operated amplifier, clipboard, and banner reading www.jakartahouseholdstaff.com are the only signs that this is no picnic.

Switching on the microphone, Warantini kicks off the meeting with a 45-second minute of prayer. The thirty-something-year-old woman from Yogjakarta, Central Java began her own career in domestic work 15 years ago in Beverly Hills. The miniature public address system was purchased with her own money a few days ago and hauled here this morning on her motorcycle.

“I can’t tell you my age,” says Tini. She’s worn a few different uniforms over the years – even designed a few – but today she’s casual, black blue jeans with pocket flaps and a collared blouse with the sleeves rolled up.

When she got the nanny job in Los Angeles it was 1998 and Indonesia was beset by political and economic upheaval. One of eight children whose father’s civil service career was limited by his elementary school education, she told me she felt like she “didn’t have a lot of options” at the time.

“I only saw ‘good rice’ once a year during fasting month,” she confided. “Because my parents insisted we buy the very best to give away as alms.” There were just two rules in the family: don’t steal and don’t ever accept charity.

The L.A. household where she was employed was high tech; so learning all the buttons for opening doors, answering phones and logging onto the Internet was one of her first tasks.

And her stump speech this morning at the zoo is that there are always options – so don’t stop punching buttons.

Coincidentally, a few weeks after the rally, Tini got her first scholarship – which was merit based – from Intel, the California-based hardware manufacturer.

Maid in Jakarta

Maid in Indonesia

Technically, this is a “first assembly” (halal bi halal), a centuries old tradition with an Arabic name yet Javanese roots. Not a far cry from an office potluck, for Indonesian organizations that observe it, it marks the normalization of work routines following Ramadan and Eid.

If you laid all of the cars and motorcycles in Java from end to end –  well that’s pretty much what it looks like once everyone has gotten their annual bonus, spent a few days at home and is headed back to into Jakarta for what is invariably a soft start to the new work year.

There’s also an element of musical chairs, since informal sector workers – say, women who want to get married or have a child – sometimes bow out of the workforce temporarily at this time of year. Meanwhile, in recent weeks a record 70,000 newcomers showed up in the “Big Durian” to look for work.

Expatriates – the preferred employers of Jakarta Household Staff (JHS), the grassroots organization that began as a blog – often check into hotels for a week or so until the holidays are over rather than try to run the household without the staff.

So with Jakarta back in the saddle, at the annual JHS meeting the woman known on golf courses, ladies clubs and primary schools around Jakarta as Nanny Tini is breaking the ice.

“OK. Someone asked why I live at the zoo. Well, I don’t live at the zoo” she says, to the relaxed laughter of the crowd of about 75, most of whom are already employed as domestic workers for expat households.

“My address is on my business card,” she continues.  “I really don’t come to the zoo much at all anymore. But if you come to my apartment, I can interview you there.”

Jakarta is an expensive city, even for formal sector workers. Tini admits that many expats pay their staffers less than the $200 minimum wage, although the cost of living has been increasing since 2012 by about 9% annually, and renting a room – just a room – can now easily be over $150 a month.

So the first step is to find a job and the second is to live creatively enough so you can send money home to children, grandchildren, siblings or parents who live elsewhere, maybe somewhere a little cheaper and more serene.

But this meeting isn’t about finding a job – at least according to Tini.

“I can’t give you a job but I can tell you how to look for one.”  It was a message she’d have occasion to repeat several times throughout the morning and one reason is because she’s even busier than ever since quitting full-time nanny work and “Can you give me a job” is a very frequently asked question.

She says she dedicates as much time as possible to her informal mentoring/job placement work, in between hand-making and marketing staffer uniforms and running an apartment cleaning service, both of which also require some blogging and other online work.

When I met Tini – through her blog – it was 2010 and just after Mt. Merapi (near Jogyakarta) had erupted. My own housekeeper had to return to her village to shovel ash so I was stuck. When Tini explained she was “helping her friends” look for work –  and that’s why she came to the zoo once a week on Sunday mornings to do interviews – I wrongly assumed she ran a labor agency.

But this morning, as I watch her pause her address, relinquish the mic, and disappear into the audience to greet late arrivals, it dawns on me that these really are her friends and she hasn’t seen them for quite a while.

A few weeks earlier, while briefing me on her plans for this year’s first assembly, Tini rattled off from memory details on budget, attendance and agenda from the three previous years. With relief she noted that this year would be less burdensome since more volunteers were signed up to help with set up and take down.

“I don’t know where else to put it,” she said referring to the recyclables the group has been experimenting with as a form of dues-paying. “So for now, it will just have to go in my living room. At least there will be some ladies to help me pack it up and move it.”

Ninik and her kids had already finished the bagging work and Ninik was listening to Tini’s nutshell version of business networking for domestic staffers.

“Who’s the person that can guarantee that you’ll find a suitable position and be successful there? Well, that’s you.”

“But we can help each other, too. Right? Isn’t that why we’re here? To help each other get ahead (maju bersama)?”

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A career in dirty work

Between interviews, business cards, and business networking on the weekends, I was surprised by all the formalities entailed by work in the informal sector.

On the other hand, domestic work in Jakarta could possibly be a career, I was realizing – maybe even a business opportunity.

Sukarno, seated next to me in a Jakarta International School (JIS) golf polo, seems satisfied with his own career decisions and those of his two sons, one a business consultant and the other who had just opened his second sushi bar in Jakarta. He said he’d been able to send them to college by working as groundskeeper and gardener for the likes of JIS, Amex and Total.

My impression is that Sukarno probably turned down a lot of job offers – since who wouldn’t want a professional gardener for $200 a month. But Tini recalled there had been some job gaps and lean times for him and his family. And she emphasizes that domestic staffers whose employers suddenly pick up stakes and vanish overseas have always been the primary focus of JHS outreach.

And to hear Tini tell it, the secret to a successful career in dirty work, is to anticipate opportunities : learning to cook in order to stop ironing; posting an index card at the supermarket to find a new boss; or buying gardening tools and hiring a friend in order to provide services to more than one family.

“If you’ve got skills, you’re going to be fine here [in Indonesia],” says Tini.

“And if you don’t, then I really wonder why you’re looking for work overseas.”

It echoes the Indonesian government’s vision, announced earlier this month, that by 2017 no Indonesians will be going overseas to work as domestics. Whether or not it’s feasible, it’s a policy tied to Indonesia’s inability to ensure proper protections for migrant workers as well as the “brain drain” factor.

“Expats need someone special,” Tini told me. “We [domestic workers] have to understand them, put up with them and even live with them.”

And families fresh off the boat can’t help but be even more demanding. Thus domestic staffers can easily find themselves over their heads – with long shopping lists of things you can’t find in Jakarta or as a go-between viz-viz the cable man, the landlord or the boss’ secretary.

Aside from cross-cultural savvy, or the ability to pick it up, many of Tini’s own professional attributes –organization, innovation, dedication and patience –also come in handy. Tini says it’s amazing how fast people will turn over their keys, computer and kids to you, if they think you’re responsible.

But it’s one thing to have learned these lessons and another to teach them.

“There will be less gossip this year,” Ninik said when I caught up with her at her workplace ahead of the meeting to ask about her role as a JHS steering committee member.

We’d been admiring some herbs she’d grown from seeds brought over from England while her husband, Udin, was exercising the dogs in the spacious gardens. Ninik and Udin live with their children at the same address as their employer, which is convenient but not common.

Ninik said the idea this year was to share specific messages – almost like a workshop. She ticked off cooking skills, recycling, English, understanding what foreigners want, and how to ask for letters of recommendation, including digital copies, as potential agenda items.

Tini had told me the same thing: “They’ve got to listen this year. We can do a lot of things but it all depends on training.” It’s a sentiment frequently voiced by business leaders in Indonesia that always rings true.

But here at the zoo it’s all bullet points: how to be more successful as a domestic. Dozens more people had arrived, packing the picnic tunnel-shaped picnic area which was a little warmer than it had been.

Tini shares some universally applicable tips on text messaging, including the fine line between following up on something and bugging someone.

“If I don’t return your text there are two possibilities. One I missed it. So please send it again. Or, two, it wasn’t actionable. There was really no response required.”

 Learning to learn

As the mic floated around the group and various JHS associates – mostly women – volunteer testimonials, somehow the discussion never seems to move very far from recycling.

These women have made silk purses from sows’ ears, turning some of hardest, lowest-prestige work anywhere into something to be proud of: self-reliance, sending kids to college, learning a foreign language, and traveling overseas, among other achievements.

But on their minds this morning is how the entire Indonesian archipelago seems to be filling up with consumer trash. One speaker said she’d just returned from a distant island and it was as bad there as here.  Someone else said it was ironic that some people – like trash pickers – struggle to collect the same items that others are trying to get rid of (garbage collection can be irregular in Jakarta).

While I admit that recycling is fun as well as a relatively popular chore in my own household, I still didn’t understand why everyone kept hammering the ”like” button on this particular issue.

So I sent Tini a text after the meeting. As usual, she responded almost immediately saying that it was likely because of the way she’d relentlessly jawed the group over the years about recycling. And that jived with what Ninik had said about Tini trying to make recycling edgy, such as through competitions.

Thus it was likely that one person’s habits, i.e. Tini, had influenced the habits of many. Which is the opposite of how it normally works, if you think about it. You could also compare it to a college class that works out somewhere over the course of the semester what the professor really cares about, as opposed to what she’s merely obliged to cover because it’s on the syllabus.

Anyway, the results were in the bag. Taking out the trash had been recast as civic education, aesthetic expression and environmental activism on a do-it-yourself basis without sponsorship, grants, etc.

The Indonesian word sosialisasi  refers to the transfer of explicitly-held knowledge or “know-how” in a particular social context. It combines informing with persuading and – at the end of the day – may well resemble a potluck or picnic.  Despite being a sometimes odd blend of top-down and bottom-up approaches to change management, “socialization” is ubiquitous in international development and corporate responsibility work in Indonesia.

Tini was referring to the learning process as it was taking place: “We’ve been talking about learning. But do you know what I heard?”

“I heard someone say, they’d love to study but no one has given them an opportunity.”

“I heard someone say they wanted to study recycling, “ she continued, fashioning an illustration out of leftover scraps of gossip.

“But this isn’t study, it’s learning.”

“And the thing about it is that we’re all free to learn. In fact, we have to learn. And no one can stop us.”

Tini, who jokes that she has a master’s in babysitting (it comes out “MBA” in Indonesian), further explained to the group that “having a degree and having knowledge are different. Even if you don’t have the degree you can still have the knowledge.”

A few weeks the sophomore entrepreneur who says her dream is to have a training center but she’ll settle for an office had a chance to tell her “How IT Changed My Life” story at Intel Media Camp 2013 in Bogor, West Java.

The out-of-town trip and new tablet computer were the first formal recognition Tini has received in connection with her social and business ventures, but, in a way, also the culmination of something that began long ago on a borrowed laptop after putting children to bed.

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Smart boss, rich boss 

Ninik vouched for Tini as a techie. “She told me I should look for cooking videos on You Tube. So I did.” Ninik’s boss – who is very supportive of her JHS role – confirmed to me that she’d been promoted with a raise after mastering the family’s favorite dishes.

In addition to clueing me up on which herbs are easiest to grow in Jakarta – not tarragon – Ninik gave me a thumbnail sketch of her domestic staffing career. She was already a mid-career employee by the time she got her current position, with Tini’s help.

Speaking in both Indonesian and English she betrayed the same range of emotions any professional might, looking back on the lucky breaks, rough patches and results of a singularly successful career. Her children try to follow the conversation, hands folded neatly on the kitchen table.

There was a focus on creativity and communications – especially English-speaking ability — in her self-narrative. But it’s probably not correct to say that because of her English Ninik can cook authentic roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, put on high teas for office purposes, and handle children on overseas trips.

Surely there’s a link. But success in a cross-cultural work environment, including language acquisition, also requires curiosity, creativity and risk-taking.

Ninik said she got her first job with an expat family “because of my English,” even though she didn’t speak any at the time.

Having misunderstood the labor agent – not Tini –  she actually showed up with her suitcase, Mary Poppins style, at the first job interview. And she maintains she was entirely monolingual in Indonesian.

“Do you speak English?“ she was asked.

“Yes. That’s what I said. What else was I going to say?” reflecting back on what had been a risky and rewarding moment.

Both Ninik and Tini spoke of former employers with respect and affection while the work experiences they shared with me reflect optimism, serendipity and a sense of humor.

Another frequent theme was having to  choose between competing job options. Such as when Ninik’s husband had to quit his job as a driver for a Singaporean family even before his new role working for Ninik’s employer – his current position –  was fully in place.

“Of course several times my husband and I have had to sit down and ask ourselves which one of us is going to work. That’s normal,” she said.

“But, as you can see, this is so much better. We’ve been so fortunate.”

The salary, benefits and experience were comparable as between the two jobs and Ninik faltered as she tried to nail down why the move had been such a good one for him.

However, the Nanny Tini axiom –  Would you rather work for a rich family or smart family? –  is quite relevant. In other words, not every organization affords the same opportunities to learn and grow.

Tini credits all her former employers – beginning with the kind Angeleno family who taught her about democracy and the Internet – for facilitating her acquisition of language, business and technology skills. And she credits herself with having chosen all the right employers.

With her own apartment, Tini has a little more space now. Yet she’s sanguine about self-employment and how hard it will be to get a business (or two) off the ground when she doesn’t even have an office.

Until she finds one, all the JHS jobseeker data will be stored in her living room, with the recyclables. Tini has yet to digitize the nearly 160 files corresponding to men and women who describe themselves variously as housekeepers, dog walkers, house couples and so on, many supported by employer letters of recommendations. And in most cases, there’s also a photo of someone standing outside the Jakarta zoo.

Jess Morgan does qualitative research and advises on workplace learning.

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