Thu, 11 Dec 2003

High stress, low pay may cause railway workers to lose cool

Nana Rukmana, The Jakarta Post, Cirebon, West Java

"Brother, I have not been able to celebrate Idul Fitri with my family since 1997 because I have been working at PT KAI (state- owned railway company), and I must work during the holidays.

"So, If I am asked about my impression of celebrating Idul Fitri with my family, I couldn't say much like other Muslims who enjoy the time with their families," Teguh Triyono, a low-ranking PT KAI employee with the Operations Region III in Cirebon, West Java, told The Jakarta Post.

Like him, other low-ranking employees of the company have similar experiences during major holiday seasons.

"To be honest, I envy other families who can celebrate Idul Fitri together and pay respects to our parents and older relatives, while eating feasts of Ketupat (rice steamed in palm leaf) and Opor Ayam (chicken cooked with coconut milk). Imagining them are wonderful, but work has to be number one for me. I have taken an oath to serve the public. I don't want to be disloyal," said Teguh, the father of one child.

Besides not being able to celebrate Idul Fitri in their hometowns, low-ranking employees like Teguh are often blamed by passengers or superiors for any problems that arise. They are often made the scapegoats after the frequent railway accidents.

When asked about railway accidents, Teguh declined to answer and just smiled wryly. But then he says blandly, "That is one of the risks of train travel."

Together with his nine colleagues at the Cirebon railway station, he routinely monitors and directs all passing trains, usually in 24-hour shifts.

If anything is neglected, calamity may be the result. Be it a train derailment or other accident, which often claim many lives and millions of rupiah in material losses.

"Even when our eyes are shut, our ears must be ready to hear and receive reports and orders," Teguh said.

During the Idul Fitri exodus, all PT KAI employees have to increase their alertness throughout their shifts.

And it is next to impossible for employees of PT KAI to take a vacation during Idul Fitri. "There are direct orders from our bosses prohibiting all the employees from taking leave. The regulation is also supposedly imposed on high-ranking executives."

Teguh was hired by PT KAI in 1997 and was assigned for duty at an auxiliary station in Haurgeulis, Indramayu regency, West Java. In 1998, he was transferred to the small station of Pasir Bungur, Subang regency.

While on duty, he constantly feels worried about the possibility of more accidents, as almost all the trains have equipment that is obsolete, much of it on the brink of breaking down.

"It is very risky. The man who maintains the equipment may have done his utmost, but when the equipment is so outdated, there is a limit to what can be done, and the quality is affected. Working under such conditions does not inspire a sense of security, let alone a level of comfort. Nonetheless, I have no choice but to work here," Teguh said.

Other employees, including senior officials, admit that almost all the equipment and infrastructure, including railway tracks, are woefully obsolete.

Worse still, working in such a high-risk, high-stress environment does not mean high pay. Employees have often complained about their poor standard of living due to the relatively low wages.

As a state-owned company, PT KAI's remuneration system is the same as any civil servant, many of whom considered themselves to be underpaid.

For an employee like Teguh whose status is Group II B, he receives take-home pay of less than Rp 900,000 (US$105) per month.

Indeed, there are other benefits, like monthly allowances that reach Rp 200,000. But the entire amount has not been deemed adequate in relation to their responsibilities.

"For Idul Fitri, employees also get bonuses, but the amount is not much," Teguh complained.

Sources from PT KAI said the bonuses given to its employees this year was less than Rp 6,000 per day during Idul Fitri. In 2002, they received only Rp 4,000 a day for Idul Fitri.

Considering the stress they must endure to ensure safe journeys for thousands of train travelers on obsolete railway tracks and other equipment, the low salary has begun to irk most low-ranking PT KAI workers.