July 27, 2005

Indonesians fight to be a maid in new TV show

By Tomi Soetjipto

JAKARTA (Reuters) - When an Indonesian reality TV show was
announced featuring baby-faced actor Ari Wibowo's search for a
maid, thousands were suddenly jostling for a job that normally
means low pay, endless hours and sometimes abuse.

From English teachers to top chefs, up to 18,000 people
throughout the country joined the battle to become the "maid
idol" for ethnically Eurasian Ari, whose good looks have made
him one of Indonesia's top-rated television stars.

That may be because, in a country where a typical maid
might make around $30 a month plus room and board, the "maid
idol" will receive 10 million rupiah ($1,040), far more than
even many Indonesian white collar workers.

Then there's the glamour of working for the Berlin-born
actor who has starred in dozens of love-themed soap operas.

"He has the looks, he has the charms ... so who would not
want to be Ari Wibowo's maid?" said producer Manoj Punjabi, who
heads one of the top production houses in the country.

Quarantined in a spacious house, the 20 finalists will
compete on TV for three months, performing routine chores such
as cooking meals and baby-sitting, and more unusual tasks such
as finding a lost cellphone.

Viewers will get a chance to root for their favorite
candidate by sending mobile phone messages and dialing special
numbers for a small fee, which have proven to be a lucrative
source of return for the producers of previous reality shows.

But the show sparked criticism among leading rights
activists even before it kicked off in mid-July.

STARK REALITY

"This show is in contrast with the stark reality," said
Lita Anggraini of the Legal Protection Advocates for Domestic
Helpers.

She said the Indonesian term "pembantu," which means helper
rather than worker and is used in the Indonesian title of the
show, in itself reinforces the view that maids are not
professionals and therefore not entitled to normal worker
rights.

And in practice Indonesia's labor laws either don't apply
or are largely ignored when it comes to maids.

"It's almost like a modern-day slavery because there are no
working hours, no legal protection and no regulation to spell
out their rights," parliamentarian and women's rights activist
Nursyahbani Katjasungkana told Reuters.

"Many of their employers are busy professionals who may not
earn very much so there is a resistance among them to
recognizing rights of domestic helpers," said Katjasungkana.

For many maids in Indonesia, where unemployment is a major
problem, the work is welcome, and Katjasungkana conceded it is
not uncommon for households to take maids under the family's
wings and financially support the maids' relatives.

But New-York-based Human Rights Watch recently reported
widespread physical and sexual abuse of hundreds of thousands
of young girls working as maids in Indonesia.

Some girls as young as 11 endure long working hours, paltry
pay, lack of education and no days off, the group said.

Producer Punjabhi brushed off suggestions his show was in
effect making light of a serious situation.

"It's a hope for the maids that if I am the chosen one I
can be a special maid," Punjabhi said, adding: "I'm confident
what we are doing over here is something of benefit to the
nation."

ONE REAL MAID

However only one real maid reached the show's finals.

Sumariyah, 39, started working as a maid when in the third
grade but was not paid a salary. However, the employer did pay
for her education up to junior high school.

The mother of one was working for a Japanese executive
before joining the show and said she hoped to get the money to
finance her daughter's tertiary education.

"This is to improve my life because as it happens my
husband is just a (security) guard," said Sumariyah, her face
caked in heavy make-up.

Sumariyah, who can cook Japanese and Western food, might
fit Ari's own idea of a "maid idol."

"I would like the winner to be someone who really needs the
money for a good cause, for family, to help the husband, earn a
living rather than have a die-hard fan in my house," said the
smartly dressed actor in fluent English.

"If that person can cook, very good. That's an added bonus
since I'm still single. I don't have a wife who's going to cook
for me," said the 34-year-old actor, laughing.

His lack of interest in die-hard fans could be bad news for
contestant Vista Budi Kusumah, 29, who was in tears when seeing
the television star in person for the first time.

"He is so handsome," gushed awe-struck Kusumah, shielding
her flustered face with a napkin after exchanging smiles with
Ari.