Wed, 19 Mar 2003

Street vendors helpless against extortion by thugs

M. Taufiqurrahman, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

"After last month's fire, business here is not going very well. But I still have to pay a large proportion of my profits to thugs," said Hardi, 42, not his real name, a street vendor at the Tanah Abang market, Central Jakarta.

He said on Tuesday that every day he had to pay around Rp 8,500 (US$1) in "security" fees to five different gangs operating in the market.

Such extortion is just one example of the extent to which thuggery has encroached on the lives of street vendors in the city and has added to the problems they already experience.

"The extortion is very burdensome for me these days, because after a fire ravaged the market last month, I make a profit of only about Rp 20,000 per day. This means that I have to give away almost half of my profits to thugs," he told The Jakarta Post.

During weekends, when more visitors came to the market, the thugs would extort more from street vendors, Hardi said.

"We also have to pay more during holidays such as Idul Fitri and Idul Adha, when buyers throng the market," he said.

He added that during peak seasons, a street vendor might have to pay as much as Rp 10,000 per gang per day.

A fellow trader, Wawan, 40, also not his real name, said that thugs did not care about the fact that street vendors were facing hard times at present.

"They still demand the same amount of money, although they know that business hasn't been good.

"If the amount of money we pay is less than it was the previous day, they throw our merchandise into the street. We can hardly bargain with crooks like that," Wawan said.

Although the levies were imposed under the guise of "security" services, Wawan said that in reality, only insecurity prevailed at the market.

"How can the thugs say that they provide us with security, when some of them even extort money from visitors?

"There are also rampant cases of robbery and theft in the market," he said, adding that such conditions were driving visitors away.

In Tanah Abang, a business district known for the notoriety of its thugs, reportedly there are five gangs that impose different levies on traders, each claiming that it "rules" a certain part of the area. Recruitment of gang members in the area is based on their ethnic background.

Hardi, who sells apparel from a makeshift tent, bemoaned the fact that street vendors in the market were treated more like servants of the thugs.

"We are doing business, only to have someone else take our hard-earned profits, but we can do nothing about it," he said.

Hardi added that he and his fellow traders in the market had reached the point where they were desperate about dealing with the ubiquitous thugs.

"Even the police don't seem to be serious in dealing with them. Past experience has shown us that a thug who was caught red-handedly extorting vendors was released minutes after his friends bailed him out," he said.

Separately, a criminologist from the University of Indonesia, Adrianus Meliala, said that widespread thuggery was a result of an inability on the part of the government to provide security for its citizens.

"Thugs then take on the role of providing security services, which are, of course, not free," Adrianus told the Post.

Over time, as the demand for security rose, thuggery grew strong and became uncontrollable; it was at that point that the public then voiced its concerns, he said.