Fired during COVID, Bali’s low paid now demand double the pay

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Employers are struggling to fill positions as tourism roars back to life on popular resort island.

Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia – Made, an Airbnb host who manages a luxury villa on Bali’s sultry west coast, spent two months looking for a gardener after the last one quit without notice.

“I advertised on Facebook five times, gradually increasing the salary until the fifth time when I found someone,” Made, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name, told Al Jazeera.  “By then I had increased the salary by 60 percent.”

Made’s experience is far from unique on the popular island resort.

As tourism in Bali roars back to life after the scrapping of most COVID-19 restrictions, workers are in short supply.

More than 1.4 million foreign tourists visited Bali between January and October of 2022, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, compared with just a few dozen arrivals in 2021.

Figures for November and December have not been released, but local authorities said last month they had planned for up to 1.5 million arrivals during the Christmas period.

Nearly half of workers in Bali, where tourism accounts for 60-80 percent of the economy, reported losing income in 2020. But now, employers cannot hire fast enough.

“What we are finding is it’s really hard to find qualified and middle-ranking staff because after losing their jobs, they went back to their villages and set up little businesses selling phone cards or that sort of thing,” Will Meyrick, a Scottish chef who co-owns several restaurants in Bali, told Al Jazeera.

“They are earning the same amount of money for only a few hours of work per day, and the government is giving free online business courses. It’s the same as in the West. People who worked from home want to continue doing so. If you want to get them back you have to give them at least 50 percent more than what they were earning in 2019.”

Opportunities outside hospitality

Ina, an executive at a luxury hotel in Yogyakarta, Java, is among the many hospitality workers demanding better pay and conditions.

After the Bali hotel she was working at cut her wages by three-quarters during the first year of the pandemic, Ina found her current job in Yogyakarta at her full salary.

But now, head hunters are trying to lure her back to Bali.

“Tourism in Bali has bounced back for the festive season and the G20, so anyone who got rid of staff during the pandemic is trying to fill those roles again,” Ina, who asked to use a pseudonym, told Al Jazeera.

“Three different hotels in Bali have offered me jobs this month. But I’m not even considering them until they offer more pay.”

Some former hospitality workers have found they can do better working in the gig economy.

Ida Bagus Nuyama, a driver for the Indonesian ride-hailing service Gojek, has doubled his monthly earnings since losing his job as a housekeeper at a villa in 2020.

“Now I earn four million rupiahs ($257) a month after paying for expenses and it’s not hard work like at the villa,” Nuyama told Al Jazeera. “I just drive around and listen to music all day.”

Job opportunities in the cruise ship industry are a further headache for employers — and a boon to jobseekers.

“We have a huge shortage of chefs in Bali,” Kit Cahill, manager of Bubble Hotel Bali, told Al Jazeera.

“You advertise, you offer the job, but they don’t show up because a lot of quality staff left to take jobs on cruise ships.”

Kit Cahill leans against a rock retaining wall in a yoga pose with one foot planted in the sand with a surfboard stood up next to her and a medium-sized dog looking off in the distance.
Bali hotel managers such as Kit Cahill are struggling to find staff as tourism rebounds from the pandemic [Courtesy of Ian Neubauer]

Mitchell Anseiwciz, the Australian co-owner of Ohana’s, a beach club and boutique hotel on Nusa Lembongan, a satellite island of Bali, has had several employees quit for cruise ship jobs.

“I can’t blame them. It’s a great opportunity to see the world for people who otherwise wouldn’t travel and the cruise ships do a brilliant job of training,” Anseiwciz told Al Jazeera.

Anseiwciz said that while finding and retaining skilled staff has always been a challenge on Nusa Lembongan because of its remote location, his business has mitigated those challenges by being an “employer of choice”.

“We have a reputation for paying correctly, on time and honouring all employee entitlements like health and pension, fair work conditions, holiday pay and sick leave,” he said.

For casual workers, the incentives of the cruise industry include vastly higher salaries than they would otherwise be able to earn.

Cruise lines such as Carnival and Norwegian can pay unskilled staff $16,000-$20,000 per year — a sizable sum in Bali, where the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is less than $5,000. With only marginal living expenses, crew members are typically able to save a big chunk of their income.

“In cruise ships, the income is much, much better,” I Made Alit Mertyasa, a former guide with a Bali-based motorcycle touring company who now works as a housekeeping attendant for the Carnival Sunrise cruise ship, told Al Jazeera.

Ni Luh Putu Rustini holding a child on her lap.
Nanny Ni Luh Putu Rustini has doubled her rates since the pandemic [Courtesy of Ian Neubauer]

Back in Bali, Ni Luh Putu Rustini, a freelance nanny who has doubled her rates since the pandemic, said that employers could no longer hope to retain staff by offering the minimum wage, which ranges from 2.4 million to 2.9 million rupiahs ($154-$186) per month depending on the district.

“During the pandemic, people would work for any money or just food,” Rustini told Al Jazeera.

“But now you have to offer 3.2 million rupiahs [$206] per month to even find someone to work and 5 to 6 million rupiahs [$321-$386] per month to keep them. It’s very easy to find a job now so people are no longer satisfied with low salaries like before.”

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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