THE PHONE rang in the Muslikun house at Tirem village one Monday afternoon at the end of March 2006. While most of villagers were busy on the farm, Muslikun preferred to stay at home. The father of two children, he had not yet stayed a week at home. He had been working as a stone-cracker and coolie in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, for months. His youngest daughter followed him to seek a job in the city. Eventually, she worked in a textile industry in Pejagalan, North Jakarta.
Tirem village is located in Mbrati sub-district, Central Java. It is a poor resource region. Villagers have limited economic access. The young people prefer to leave the village. They go to big cities in Java, such as Semarang, Surabaya, Yogyakarta, or Jakarta. The remaining villagers worked as farmers in the paddy fields of the landlords.
“Muslikun, do you want to go to Aceh or not?” a man over the phone asked.
He was a neighbor and friend named Marzuki. He had been in Aceh for several days, working as a coolie in a housing project for tsunami casualties.
“If you didn’t work, you have nothing in hand. What did you do in the village anyway?” Marzuki asked over the phone.
Then Marzuki told him how fascinating his work was as a coolie in the land that was swallowed by the tsunami. If he works as “tukang,” he gets 45 thousand rupiahs (around 4.5 USD) per day. If he starts to work in the morning up to 10 o’clock at night, he could earn 9 dollars.
While listening to Marzuki’s stories, Muslikun envisioned he could have easy work and a good wage in Aceh. His brain started to count as fast as a calculator did. He could earn at least 270 dollars each month. When he worked as a coolie in Jakarta metropolis, he never got that much.
“Absolutely, yes I want to go there!” Muslikun replied immediately.
Muslikun, after the talk, invited several men who are his neighbors to meet in his house. Main topic of the meeting is to discuss Marzuki offering to work as coolie in Aceh reconstruction and rehabilitation. The money they could earn was included in their discussion. There were 14 attendants, including Ahmad, Sulipin, Sumali, Parjono, Rohmat, and Maftuhin. Sulipin is the youngest. He is not more than 20 years old.
The group decided they would follow and join Marzuki in Aceh as a coolie as soon as possible. However, some hurdles remained. Each of them had to provide himself a flight ticket.
“I have to sell my motorbike certificate owner (BPKB) to buy the ticket,” Muslikun told me.
The certificate price was 150 dollars. He feels lucky as he has savings from when he worked as a coolie in Jakarta. He spent 100 dollars to buy an airplane ticket, and gave the rest to his wife.
“I have to borrow some money from BRI (Bank of Indonesian People),” Ahmad said.
Parjono preferred to try another way. He said, “I went around to my neighbors and borrowed their money.”
Sulipin, Maftuhin, Rohmat and Sumali did the same. They solved the flight ticket problem and were ready to fly. On Thursday, three days after the meeting at Muslikun’s house, they took a bus from Purwodadi bus station and went to Jakarta. They arrived on Friday. However, their money was not enough for extra expenses after the flight ticket.
“We stayed one night in our friend’s house. We also tried to get an extra loan from our friend in Jakarta,” Sumali said.
They were lucky. They got the loan. One Saturday morning in early April, they departed from Soekarno-Hatta Airport to Aceh.
VISIONS OF EARNING high extended-hour wages, and on-time salary payment, were fading after they worked for three weeks in Bitai, Banda Aceh. They worked for PT BJM, a local sub-contractor that develops houses for tsunami victims. None of them knew when I asked about its acronym. In the beginning, PT BJM promised they would give the coolies their salary every two weeks on Tuesday. The seven coolies said it is nonsense!
“They (PT BJM management) said they would pay us on Friday. On Friday, they said Tuesday. Tuesday to Friday, and so on,” Ahmad revealed.
“We got lunch indeed. But they didn’t pay our salary,” Parjono added.
“Nobody in our group was paid. I was supervisor in BJM,” Muslikun said. “And before things get worse there, I and my friends leave them immediately,” he added.
Although they had agreement on work, that does not guarantee those coolies would have their payment rights due on the contract paper. Those seven coolies eventually preferred to walk out of their tent instead of working without pay.
Syaiful, another coolie supervisor, was also complaining about a wicked sub-contractor in a housing project for tsunami victims. He and his four coolies worked to build the riverbank edge across Lampeneureut Street in Aceh Besar. They also build a number of units for a housing aid project.
Syaiful is Acehnese, born in Banda Aceh. He told me that although the contractor shares same ethnicity as Acehnese, it does not mean they are honest. He described the deceitful contractor.
“If contractor A got a project, he would seek another contractor B and offering the project price lower than he got. In the end, it will affect the salary of workers at the low level. The coolies receive cheap payment. On the other hand, price of foodstuff and others basic needs are increasing after billion s in aid poured into Aceh. Therefore, I don’t want to accept any housing project if the price offering is less than standard.”
According to Syaiful, the standard price to build a house is about 15 million rupiahs or 1,500 dollars. This price could be negotiated down to 1,200 dollars. Thus, he insisted, coolies would never have sufficient life if the price were below that number.
“But there are also some contractors from Medan and Java who dare to take eight million rupiahs per unit. They take coolies from Java. They thought costs of basic needs in Aceh are the same as in Java, where a plate of rice is about three thousand rupiah.”
Hendra, another supervisor I met in Lampuuk, Aceh Besar, spoke of a deceitful contractor in a housing aid project for tsunami victims. His coolies are Javanese born in Medan, North Sumatra. To protect his coolies, Hendra always asks for a contract for work. The complete address and each signature is included.
“Just to make it clear. If there is any dispute, any side could be charged,” he said.
Muslikun and his friends were among the victims of a deceitful contractor. However, those seven Javanese coolies did not quit. They applied to Waskita Karya, a state-owned contractor that also built housing aid projects in Lampuuk and Bitai. Waskita project was funded the Turkish Red Cross Society.
Waskita need more coolies. They got million rupiah projects to build hundreds of house units. In Bitai, Banda Aceh, they build as many as 350. Total project cost was more than 30 billion rupiahs. In Lampuuk, Aceh Besar, Waksita build 200 houses of the same type. In an early project, Agency of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction in Aceh and Nias included Waskita on a blacklist due to their performance. Although the cash poured in, Waskita could not reach the targets on time.
LAMPUUK was one of the devastated villages after the tsunami. Hundreds of houses were flattened to the ground. This village is located one kilometer from the Lampuuk beach. Rahmatullah mosque was the only building that survived the gigantic wave.
Hundreds of workers were busy when I got there at the end of May 2006. According to the plan, 700 houses will be built there. About 200 houses were finished. The sub-contractors of Waskita Karya will complete the rest.
Most of the coolies came from East Java, Central Java, Jakarta and West Java. Waskita brought around 400 men from those provinces to Lampuuk. This number is less then in Bitai, where about 1,500 coolies work and live in tents around the housing project. They will be sent home little-by-little when house targets are complete.
I asked Muchdir Arrys, head of field for Waskita housing project in Lampuuk, why Waskita choose coolies from Java.
“First, because they are willing to work. We could motivate them as they work far away from home. If we take locals, they would go home immediately after work. How can we motivate them? Second, because Javanese coolies have more skills than the locals,” Muchdir said.
“But, it doesn’t mean that we aren’t prioritizing local workers. We recruit the locals, too,” he added.
Waskita is not the one who brought coolies from Java in Lampuuk housing aid project. Several sub-contractors in the location were using Javanese coolies. However, those coolies came from Medan, an adjacent province to Aceh.
Even though they were born and lived in Medan, their ancestors were from Java, for example, Marsidi. He worked for PT Kuala Batee Ind, a sub-contractor of Waskita. Marsidi’s parents were born in Wonosobo, Central Java. This 36-year-old man was a farmer in Medan prior to working as a coolie in Aceh. He earned a small amount of money as a farmer. That is why he nodded when his friend asked him to work in Aceh.
Priadi is another Javanese born in Medan and working as coolie in Aceh. His ancestors and relatives were living in Ponorogo district, East Java.
Those Javanese coolies were sharing the same Java language in their daily work. As a consequence, Lampuuk changed into a Javanese village. They lived in tents around the brick-house they built. Since the roof of tent is zinc-made, sunlight would “boil” anyone who sleeps inside.
Tent size is about 24 square meters. Around 20 men could sleep in there. Clothes, pants, towels, underwear hung inside the tent too.
“When we are asleep, our legs will meet each other.” Marsidi laughed. I imagine, they will share each other’s sweat.
In Bitai, Muslikun and his friends had the same experience. These seven Javanese coolies just moved to a new brick-house before I visited them. They said too many people were in the tent.
When night came, it was dark. Food stalls are far from their place. If hungry, they cook by themselves instead of going to a food stall. Since they must pay their loan to the bank or friends, on Sunday or free day they were working, too.
“If we take vacation, we will lose much money. In case we are not sick, we prefer to work. We came from far away to earn more; we need no vacation,” Muslikun told me.
They worked as if they were Javanese coolie in Dutch colonial times. The difference is they flew to east Sumatra because they wanted to.
“We will find another contractor if we have no work in Waskita. After we have enough saving, we will be going home to Java.” Muslikun said.
IN 1863, the ship Josephine anchored in East Sumatra port. It carried hundreds of Javanese contract coolies. They belonged to Jacobus Nienhuijs, a Dutch mogul who opened a tobacco farm in Deli, East Sumatra.
At that time, Deli tobacco’s aroma was famous in the Europe market. Nienhuijs planned to expand his farm in order to increase tobacco production. He wished he could double it.
Nienhuijs, in the beginning, recruited Chinese workers from Penang, Malay. Then he recruited dozens of Malay workers.
Later, Chinese government tried to control the number of workers going to Dili plantations. British colonial administrator in India did the same thing. They made some requirements for Tamil workers who went to Deli. However, they did not make Penang and Singaporean worker brokers relinquish. Brokers kept bringing illegal coolies. Having local workers in Deli tobacco farm made difficulties for landlords. Local coolies often refuse to comply.
“Sumatranese coolies were rejected in Deli, because they always disobey and break the rules, not like Javanese coolies. They also demanded higher wages than the Javanese did. If Javanese decline to work, they will throw them in prison, and anyone who helps them to escape will be punished, too,” Nienhuijs said as quoted in Oos-Indische Spiegel, published in Amsterdam 1876.
Official terms of contracts for coolies appeared in 1889. This law applied only to foreign coolies, such as Chinese and Tamil and Indonesian who lived outside East Sumatra. Therefore, Javanese coolie’s population increased. Later, the population in East Sumatra was overwhelming higher than the Tamils and Chinese.
The word ‘Koelie’ apparently came from English ‘cooli’ that adopted Tamil’s word ‘kuli’ in which the meaning is someone who is paid to do rough work. Coolies on contract were acknowledged as poor people in Java Island. Their life was terrible and they suffered for years. Ann Laura Stoler wrote about their life in her book titled “Capitalism and Confrontation in Sumatra’s Plantation Belt 1870-1979.”
According to Stoler, the coolie is an animal that needed to be domesticated. Furthermore, coolie is modern slavery.
When tobacco plantations changed over to rubber in 1926, Javanese male coolie contract population has reached more than 142,000 and there were around 53,000 females. The Dutch colonial government noted that in 1920 Javanese population in East Sumatra had reached 353,551, more than the Malayan population of 285,553.
Similar to Javanese coolies’ fate today, those coolies lived in small wood-houses around farms and plantations. Atrocities regularly happened when they were fighting each other or in insurgencies. This dark history has continued. Java Island is center of power, as well as the biggest coolie supplier today.
SUNSET comes in Lampuuk early June 2006. Soon dark will cover up the coolie village. I heard the loud sound of house-music from food stalls.
Some food stall owners had turned on their televisions that were connected to parabola antenna. There was a World Soccer game show tonight. The game, held in Germany, is a kind of refreshing for hundreds of coolies at night. They could shout together when there is a goal. However, they could only watch it after 8 PM.
“Stalls will just open after night prayer,” Hendra said.
At the same time, in Bitai, those seven Javanese coolies could not enjoy World Soccer game on television. They stayed at their room in the unfinished house and took some rest after extended hours of work.
“We’re exhausted,” Ahmad told me while Sulipin already lay down on the floor.
“Anyway, the stall which has television was already closed. We better go to sleep. We must be back to work tomorrow,” Muslikun added as I left them. ***
*) This story published in Aceh Feature Service Syndicate.