Travel

Meet the Women Building Bali's Luxury 'Paradise' for Dollars a Day

The island's tourism boom continues to draw construction workers from across Indonesia—many of them women who work backbreaking days in the tropical sun for less pay than their male counterparts.

by Jed Smith; photos by Angga Pratama
11 September 2017, 10:01pm

As dusk falls over Bali's west coast another gruelling day of hard labor draws to a close for the sixty or so women on this Singaporean-owned construction site. But their work isn't finished yet. Back at their make shift camp, located a two minute walk from Canggu—a hip seaside village, they are straight back on the tools, this time preparing meals for the husbands, and sometimes children, that share their single-room bamboo huts.

"The hardest [part] is I get so tired, sometimes I cannot handle it anymore. I just crash down and cry. When that happens I get flashbacks of how sad my life is," explains Made, 35, who was orphaned as a three year old.

The days are long, hot and lowly paid. Made—a pseudonym—has worked seven days a week for the past three months, waking at 3:30 AM to begin preparing food for her husband, also a construction worker on site, and their children. They arrive at work together at 7 AM and spend the day lugging steel beams, shovelling cement, hammering rods into concrete in stifling humidity and 30 degree heat.

"Sometimes it is sad but there is nothing else I can do. If I don't do this then my family cannot eat," she says.

Construction sites don't discriminate when it comes to work. Only the pay is different, with men taking home around Rp 120,000 ($12 USD) a day and women Rp 80,000 ($8 USD). The work is also incredibly dangerous. There is little in the way of safety regulations and deaths are not uncommon. Made's husband, a man who wants to be called Wayan, recalls watching one man die after an elevator cable snapped and he was crushed by the load of concrete he was accompanying.

Both tell me they didn't want to use their full names out of fear that they'll be fired for talking ill of safety standards. The couple are from Singaraja, a poorer district in Bali's vast interior, where they once worked as rice farmers. At the conclusion of each job—usually after three to five months—they return home for a few days before returning for the next project.

Women don't typically work on construction sites in Indonesia. But in Bali, where a decades-long tourism boom has all but transformed huge swaths of the island's south, women are a common site. Construction, Made tells me, provides a more stable and dependable income than farming.

"If you work on the projects the money is safe whereas if you do farming it depends on whether the rice is good this year," she says. "Now, if I go to work today, I know I'll get that much. In farming it is kind of uncertain in that way."

With the day finished, workers trudge ashen faced through the middle of a bustling tourist strip, past vacationers spending the equivalent of what Made and her husband earn in a day on a single cocktail or bowl of açai berries. Made and her husband are philosophical about the yawning gap in living standards.

"I think in my head, this is how it looks like when you have money and I wonder how I would be," says Wayan. "For me I think it's fair. You have money and that's your life. For me, I don't have money so I have to work. As long as I have work I think it's fair."

In the neighbouring building we meet an elderly couple from Java, who also left behind rice farming to join the construction boom. The last job Suhita and Panji held, in the tourist hotspot Ubud, was so physically exhausting they could only complete a half day's work.

Despite Balinese community groups calling for a moratorium on resort development, construction projects continue all over the island—with many more planned. US President Donald Trump and his Indonesian business partner Hary Tanoesoedibjo are currently developing a controversial six-star resort—the island's biggest—in nearby Tanah Lot. And they aren't alone. Luxury villa developers such as Elite Homes boast of providing "neo-colonial" style apartments and villas for between $875,000 USD and $6.5 million USD.

Suhita and Panji are not looking for luxury. A concrete home and basic education for their children and grandchildren would suffice.

"Before Indonesians could just farm and feed the family and it was fine but now you need more money," she says. "You cannot build a house with only the money you get from farming. We want a house made of concrete, not like this. And we want to school our children. Before we didn't go to school. If it's only farming, there's not enough."