Jesi at work (Source: Lennart Zech)

Indonesia: Childhood between garbage and hope

The poverty in Indonesia is extreme. To ensure the survival of their families, many children have to work - often under exploitative and dangerous conditions. Our partner organization PKPA helps girls and boys on the island of Sumatra to escape the spiral of poverty by education, and it also provides emergency aid for families in the Corona crisis.

Text: Christiane Dase, cover photo: Lennart Zech

The biting stench is omnipresent. The girls climb around in flip-flops between rotting leftovers of food, pressed cola cans, plastic garbage and torn clothes. The stinking carpet of garbage spreads over the riverbank for kilometers, with palm trees and banana plants growing towards the sky in between. The water down by the river is a gray-green, murky broth. The children stuff everything that is still suitable for sale from the garbage into bags and sacks: glass bottles, metal, even cardboard boxes. Aluminium cans are particularly good for selling. The garbage collectors earn 11,000 Indonesian Rupiah from one kilo of cans - the equivalent of just over 60 cents. Even before Corona, this was hard earned money.

Because of the government's instruction to stay at home, many companies have shut down their operations. As a result, hardly anyone today buys the garbage from the children for recycling. And if someone does, they get even less for it. But children like Jesi continue to collect anyway - they need every cent. The 13-year-old lives with five siblings and her father in a village just outside Medan, the chaotic capital of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Seven people in a small hut with two rooms. Monotonously whirring, a fan distributes hot air in the stuffy living room. A tattered carpet covers the stained concrete floor. Next to the old tube TV there is a refrigerator on the wall - nothing else. But when everyone is here in the evening, the house is packed.

Jesi with her cat (Source: Christiane Dase)
Jesi and her cat
Separating aluminium foil from plastic (Source: Lennart Zech)
Jesi must separate aluminium foil from plastic

March 2020 - a review

Jesi leans in the door frame and plays with a skinny cat. For our conversation she takes a short break from work. Since the mother left the family, Jesi and her siblings have to earn money. Her father has two jobs. But what he earns as a masseur and Tuk-Tuk driver is not enough to survive. "We all have to do our bit here," says the 13-year-old. "My sister sells snacks on the street. And I collect and wash garbage and our neighbour sells it."

For five hours of work Jesi earns 30,000 rupiah - less than two euros. She gives the money to her sister. "She uses it to buy food or pay for the school bus," says Jesi. In the morning, the girl attends eighth grade of junior high school. Jesi likes going to school and dreams of becoming a doctor. But she has little time to study: "I have to work every day after school, even on the weekends. Sometimes I am too tired for that. But we need the money!"

When children are slaving away under inhumane conditions

Indonesia is one of the countries with the most children in the world. Like Brazil, India, or China, it is considered an emerging market. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost half of the population of the Southeast Asian country, which consists of more than 13,000 islands, is living below the poverty line. Only less than 70 percent of children and young people attend secondary school - many drop out before that, because they have to support their parents financially and work. 

Indonesia has committed itself to fighting exploitative child labour in various national and international treaties and agreements. But the reality often looks different: Around four million children and young people under the age of 17 must work, almost two million of them under exploitative conditions: in industry, in restaurants and in quarries, as seller on the street, or on fishing boats.

Camelia Nasution (Source: Christiane Dase)
Camelia Nasution

Children like Jesi and their families on the island of Sumatra receive support from our Indonesian partner organization Pusat Kajian dan Perlindungan Anak (PKPA, Center for Child Studies and Child Protection). Project workers visit the girl regularly to advise her in case of worries or difficulties - and to make sure she can go to school. "Our work currently reaches around 250 children and young people between the ages of five and 18 from the poorest families in Medan. Most of them have to work," says Keumala Dewi, managing director of PKPA. "We encourage and support children to go to school in the morning and make parents aware of the importance of education. After all, without schooling they have little chance of changing their life situation in the long term.”

Jesi's example is a success story for the commitment of PKPA for working children. Not everyone is able to combine school and work like the 13-year-old. "Once they earn money, many girls and boys no longer want to go to school. Others have no choice at all. They have to work all day," explains Camelia Nasution, coordinator of the Children Creativity Center, a contact point for PKPA's working children in Medan. Because time is money. Many wash buses in bus stations for a few rupiahs, others are on the streets of the megacity as singers or sell cigarettes, sweets and water to the drivers between honking and jostling cars and scooters.

Eko with guitar and his friend (Source: Christiane Dase)
Eko (with guitar) and his friend are singing heartbreaking songs for car passengers 


Eko is struggling along as a street singer for a few Rupiah

During our visit in March, 15-year-old Eko roams Medan's crowded main streets all day long with his guitar and friends. At open car and bus windows they sing heart-rending songs for the passengers with a sad look. Always hoping that someone will slip them a few rupiah bills. Eko's friends use them to buy sweets or spend their money in an Internet café; the 15-year-old brings his entire daily wage home in the evening. Eko's father is a garbage collector, his mother does not work. "Deep in my heart I wish I could go back to school. But I don't have the time because I have to earn money. And I am ashamed because my school friends are now much smarter than me and make fun of me," Eko confesses.

"We can only encourage the children and young people, but we can’t force them to go to school. We are happy when they come here to talk to us about their situation. This way we can inform them about the dangers of working on the streets and better protect them from them," says Camelia Nasution of PKPA's Children Creativity Center. Eko used to come here after work to play soccer with his friends. "When I play soccer, I forget my worries," he says. Other children play music together, do handcrafts with the center staff, or play board games.

Bejo (Source: Christiane Dase)
Bejo usually stands with his vendor's tray on the main street in the oppressive midday heat


Corona has catastrophic consequences - especially for the poorest

But since the outbreak of Covid-19, the contact point has been closed. The Corona crisis is a challenge for the staff of the Kindernothilfe partner. "We are working in shifts and taking turns in the home office and the office to avoid infection among ourselves," stresses PKPA managing director Keumala Dewi. "Once a week we visit the children and their families at home to make sure they are well." The pandemic has made the living situation even worse for the poorest families throughout Indonesia: Those who lived from hand to mouth before are now fighting for survival.

The Corona crisis is hitting the families with whom PKPA works in Medan hard: "Many parents have lost their jobs. Most of them have to work hard every day for their income, which makes their situation even more difficult," explains Keumala Dewi. "This is also the reason why many parents do not follow the government's instructions to stay at home and also send their children to work on the streets."

Bejo usually stands with his vendor's tray on the main street in the oppressive midday heat. The twelve-year-old boy and his three siblings, together with their mother, sell water and cigarettes to the minibus drivers at a crowded intersection in the middle of Medan. There is no shade all day long. "After school we have to help out on the street," Bejo tells us during our visit. That was before Corona. Since the pandemic, business has been bad. Because fewer people take the bus, Bejo and his family sell less. Money was already scarce in the past. Between 50,000 and 80,000 rupiah - just three to five euros – they earned in one day. "If we have to buy school books, there is less to eat," says Bejo.

2 girls in the Children Creativity Center (Source: Christiane Dase)
In the Children Creativity Center children can play and retreat - but since the Corona pandemic it is only open in emergencies


Emergency aid currently ensures the survival of many families

In order to give children time to learn and to avoid having to slave all day on Medan's streets to ensure the survival of their families, PKPA provides emergency aid during the crisis: Employees regularly distribute staple foods such as rice, oil, sugar and eggs, as well as hygiene packages with soaps and masks for nose and mouth. "We also provide information on the dangers of the corona virus and explain to families that they must wash their hands regularly, wear a mask and keep a safe distance when leaving the house," emphasizes Keumala Dewi. The project staff has also developed educational games and a handbook for children, explaining about Covid-19, the consequences and how children and their families can protect themselves from the virus.

Because many schools are still closed because of Corona, children like Bejo and Jesi need cell phone credits to participate in online lessons. "Most families don’t have the money for this and cannot find public Internet access in the city," says Keumala Dewi, describing the learning situation that is difficult for many students. After talks with the government, it is now making online data volumes available free of charge so that poor families have the chance to continue learning and not lose touch.

Jesi is also learning from home at the moment. She misses her school friends, yet the 13-year-old manages to gain something positive from the situation: "Before Covid-19, I could only do my homework late at night. Because I work a little less now and save myself the trip to school by bus, I have more time and I spend it meaningfully: studying.

Child Labour and Corona

The corona crisis has had catastrophic consequences for the living conditions of working children worldwide. Lockdowns in many countries protect against infection with the virus, but for the poorest families they mean unemployment and massive loss of income. In order to earn money and ensure the survival of the family, especially children who used to do light work are now often forced to take on difficult and dangerous jobs. They are all the more dependent on state and humanitarian assistance, which is often insufficient.


The work of PKPA

Founded in Medan in 1996, the Kindernothilfe partner is committed to the participation of children and women, democracy, pluralism and equal rights for women and men in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh. With its work, the organization aims to bring about long-term social changes for the well-being of (working) children and the implementation of children's rights such as protection against violence and exploitation, education and health. To this end, PKPA is engaged in advocacy work at the political level, non-formal education, placing young school drop-outs in vocational training, providing information on children's rights and training girls and boys to express their opinions to adults, but also supporting victims of abuse and violence.





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