Thu, 04 May 2000

Migrant ditch diggers wait it out on street corners

By Ida Indawati Khouw

JAKARTA (JP): Many people may not believe that seasonal ditch diggers in the city could survive without a single penny in their pockets.

Armed with hoes, baskets and crowbars, the migrant workers usually gather at several street medians of Grogol area in West Jakarta.

The location is famous among construction foremen in search of cheap manual labor.

As of Saturday and Monday, no one had offered employment to the workers, most of whom were from Brebes and Jepara regencies in Central Java, although they had been awaiting work orders for months and already used up all of their money.

But, they do not dare return to their hometowns.

In an apparent move to continue their life in the capital during such a prolonged economic crisis, and in such trying conditions, the workers have to rely on charity in order to survive.

Years ago when construction projects were in abundance, unskilled labor was in great demand. Ditch diggers could bring home at least Rp 250,000 a month.

That was the reason why seasonal ditch digging in the capital had been so popular with farmers of Brebes and Jepara regencies. They could come to Jakarta and ply their trade when not engaged in planting rice or harvesting their crops.

"We used to work here for a few months and then return home during the planting and the harvest periods, so that we could make use of the time," said Warso, a ditch digger from Brebes.

Foremen of construction projects used to search for large numbers of diggers for various kinds of jobs, like digging wells and foundations for buildings, or constructing fences, he said.

"But we have had bad luck lately as almost no one has offered us work. It has become more and more difficult to find work," said the 50-year-old man.

He's been waiting for job orders for nearly two months, hanging around Jl. Kyai Tapa, which is located at the edge of the private Trisakti University campus in West Jakarta.

"I came here last March with Rp 25,000 in my pocket and three pairs of shirts and trousers. Of course, my money was gone after only a few days. And now I have to rely on the kindness of a food vendor here who lets me have my daily meals at her kiosk on condition that I pay her when I have money. My debt has already risen to Rp 40,000.

"I have promised her (the kiosk owner) that I will pay all of the debts right after I have the money," said the father of four children.

Another digger Dulhamid of Jepara said he could barely find the means to survive, but would not return home even though he was broke.

"I will only go home when I have enough money," said the 60- year-old man, who now has a cumulative debt of Rp 100,000 for his meals.

Dulhamid, Warso and scores of their colleagues often find themselves sitting under the trees in the shade in the polluted area of Grogol from as early as 6 a.m. up till 4 p.m..

When asked why they did not travel around the city to find jobs, he said that such efforts were useless.

"(Grogol) has become a well known place to search for seasonal diggers. Besides, construction companies have their own workers so it's difficult for us to get hired," he said.

Another digger, identified only as Tono, said that they only chatted and did nothing at the area, and then returned to their "homes" under the Grogol highway.

The area is "home" to about 80 seasonal diggers from Brebes, who also share some of its sections with men from Jepara. They have built a well and, at the end of the day, roll out mats on which to sleep.

And they all rely on the charity of nearby food vendors for their meals.