Why Indonesia needs a new Multatuli – same methods of exploitation, different actors
Sanne van Oosten
As a preparation of my trip to Indonesia I read the Dutch literary classic Max Havelaer by Multatuli. It describes the techniques of exploitation used by the Dutch onto the Indonesian peasants in the middle of the nineteenth century. Now, not much seems to have changed. Workers in the rice fields earn a meager 1 euro a day and need to send their children off to work or marriage from an extremely young age to make ends meet. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch had an extremely efficient way of exploiting the inhabitants of Indonesia. The Dutch government implemented the so-called Cultivation System that forced farmers to grow commercially tradable crops such as coffee, tea and spices. The Dutch themselves didn’t collect the crops from the farmers, they let local leaders to their dirty work
In modern day Indonesia, things do not seem to have changed a great deal. Same method, different actors. While staying in one of Indonesia’s many Kampungs (villages) we slept at the house of the rice field manager. The landowner and the manager split the proceeds of the rice fields fifty-fifty. However, the manager still has to cover all of the expenses with the 50% of the proceeds. He still has to pay for the seeds, the fertilizer, the equipment, the upkeep of the fields, and most importantly, the workers. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the manager to pay them as little as possible. And without an education or a set minimum wage, the only thing the rice workers can do is accept their fate and get to working. This shows how the rice field manager collaborates with the landowner in exploiting the people in the fields. The landowner doesn’t have to do any of the dirty work, it is done by one of inhabitants of the Kampung.
In Max Havelaer, Multatuli illustrates the harshness that is taking place by one single story. He explains that this is the best way to show the reader how grave the situation of the farmers is. I will now do the same. While staying in the Kampung we met a middle aged couple. The husband had gone blind due to the effects of cataracts. The wife had to work extra long hours in the rice field, endangering her own health. In the meantime their 15 year old son worked, literally 24/7 as a servant in the nearby city to send part of his earnings back home. The parents rarely saw their child, but that is what had to be done to compensate for the fathers blindness. The family was torn apart, and there was no hope that the father would be able to get surgery. Nevertheless, healing cataracts is a relatively simple procedure, and would cost about 1000 Euros. However, in a village where nobody earns more than 1 euro per day, collecting this money is near to impossible.
The stakes are high and a vicious circle seems to prevail. If the wages of the workers go up, the landowners and/or managers will raise the price of rice. If the price of rice rises, the poor rice field workers, who spend most of their income on rice, will starve again. Landowners and managers need to feel obliged to lower their profit margins from the goodness of their heart. Or the government needs to find the democratic backing to instate and enforce a minimum wage and distribute Indonesians wealth more equally. Only a widespread shift of mentality will be able to bring this about and break this vicious circle. Indonesia needs a Multatuli of the 21st century.