Stuck in the mid­dle

The free­lance traf­fic con­duc­tors clean­ing up In­done­sia’s con­gested streets

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - WORDS BY AISYAH LLEWELLYN PHO­TO­GRAPH BY AIDIL RIZKI NASUTION

Am­rir is a hu­man traf­fic light. Stand­ing at a busy in­ter­sec­tion in Medan, In­done­sia's fourth­largest city, he calmly waves driv­ers across the junc­tion while hold­ing up a hand to stop cars com­ing the op­po­site way. The 48-year-old, who like many In­done­sians goes by only one name, says he has been mak­ing life eas­ier for driv­ers as a free­lance traf­fic con­duc­tor for six years.

In In­done­sia, Am­rir is known as a pak ogah, a slang term linked to a char­ac­ter in an In­done­sian chil­dren's TV show who does odd jobs for cash. As Am­rir helps ease traf­fic snarl-ups, driv­ers open their win­dows and hand him money for guid­ing them safely across the street. Driv­ers nor­mally pay him be­tween IDR500 ($0.03) and IDR2,000 ($0.14), al­though not all mo­torists are kind enough to tip. On av­er­age, he makes be­tween IDR20,000 ($1.40) and IDR30,000 ($2.20) per day.

“I be­came a pak ogah six years ago when I de­cided to re­tire from my job as a be­cak [cy­cle rick­shaw] driver,” Am­rir ex­plains. “I was one of the last driv­ers in Medan to use a bi­cy­cle be­cak in­stead of a mo­torised one, and peo­ple didn't want to hire me to drive them around the city any­more as they thought I was too slow.”

Lack­ing the money to up­grade his be­cak and fit it with a mo­tor­bike, and lack­ing any other skills or ed­u­ca­tion to se­cure an­other job, Am­rir teamed up with a group of six other be­cak driv­ers. They chose their in­ter­sec­tion af­ter re­al­is­ing that, without any traf­fic lights in place, and with heavy traf­fic com­ing from the main road and the side streets, there was a need for traf­fic guides to help cars nav­i­gate the junc­tion. The group de­cide on their sched­ules amongst them­selves so that ev­ery­one has a chance to work and make money ev­ery day. Work­ing in shifts, they be­gin at 8am and con­tinue through­out the day, some­times un­til the early hours of the morn­ing. Each man works for about two to three hours per day, seven days a week. Am­rir says that his favourite shift is at about 1pm when the roads are at their busiest, with chil­dren go­ing home from school, so there is a higher chance of tips.

Pak ogah can be found in cities all over In­done­sia, but since they work as free­lancers, it is dif­fi­cult to get an idea of how many there are. Ac­cord­ing to the Cas­trol-Mag­natec Stop-Start In­dex, which looks at how many times driv­ers have to stop and start their cars and how long they idle in traf­fic, In­done­sia is the world's most traf­fic-con­gested coun­try. A num­ber of is­sues con­trib­ute to this con­ges­tion, in­clud­ing roads that were built decades ago without traf­fic lights and are now too nar­row for the in­creas­ing vol­ume of cars. In ad­di­tion, Medan, which is lo­cated on Su­ma­tra, has boomed on the back of the is­land's four mil­lion-acre palm oil trade. The city's pop­u­la­tion has more than dou­bled in the past 20 years.

As Tuti Lu­bis, who works on town plan­ning ini­tia­tives in Medan, ex­plains: “There are so many new build­ings in Medan, as well as an in­crease in the num­ber of cars, which the roads are just not de­signed to deal with. Add this to the char­ac­ter of driv­ers in Medan, who are known for be­ing ex­tremely im­pa­tient, and you see why there is a need for peo­ple like pak ogah.”

These in­for­mal traf­fic guides feed the need for or­der on In­done­sia's con­gested streets, but they are also a prod­uct of the coun­try's strong free­lance econ­omy. Ac­cord­ing to data from the World Bank, some 53% of In­done­sian work­ers are self-em­ployed. The bank's data also shows that the un­em­ploy­ment rate is about 5.5%

of the labour force, or 7.2 mil­lion peo­ple in a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of 261 mil­lion. For those such as Am­rir who can't get a for­mal job, there is a need to be re­source­ful.

Al­though pak ogah are try­ing to help the traf­fic sit­u­a­tion in In­done­sia, not ev­ery­one is im­pressed by their work. Ac­cord­ing to Gani, who also goes by only one name, and is a mo­torised be­cak driver who works on Jalan Polo­nia with Am­rir, pak ogah have a dif­fi­cult rep­u­ta­tion in In­done­sia.

“Peo­ple some­times say that pak ogah are thugs or crim­i­nals. They think they are lazy and can't be both­ered to get a real job, even though this kind of work is tir­ing and can be dan­ger­ous,” he says.

In­deed, work­ing as a pak ogah is not for the faint-hearted, and it comes with risks, from breath­ing exhaust fumes to stand­ing in the sun for hours on end. While Am­rir says he has never been hit by a car, an­other pak ogah named Kino, 17, who also goes by only one name, al­most had his leg bro­ken re­cently when a Go-Jek (mo­tor­bike taxi) driver ploughed into him.

“I was stand­ing in the street di­rect­ing the traf­fic, but he didn't pay at­ten­tion to my hand sig­nals telling him to stop. He just ran into me. It

felt like my leg had been shat­tered,” Kino says.

Kino fin­ished school when he was 16 and strug­gled to find a job in Medan. He now works on Jalan Mon­gin­sidi at an­other busy junc­tion. As a free­lancer, and like the ma­jor­ity of pak ogah, he doesn't have in­sur­ance. When Kino was hit, the Go-Jek driver took him to a nearby hospi­tal and paid for treat­ment.

Kino works with an­other traf­fic guide called Yuda, who is 16 and also goes by one name. He is in his fi­nal year of school, and the two have been friends since they were young. Yuda says he earns up to IDR30,000 ($2.20) for a three-hour shift and spends it on

“treats”, mainly fizzy drinks.

Al­though work­ing as a pak ogah is con­sid­ered ‘un­skilled' work, it is not easy. Pak ogah re­ceive no train­ing, which means that de­pend­ing on their own skill lev­els, they can some­times make the traf­fic sit­u­a­tion worse or suf­fer in­juries.

As Lu­bis ex­plains: “Pak ogah are of­ten pushed into this kind of work be­cause they need money. They don't nec­es­sar­ily help the traf­fic sit­u­a­tion in that case, and they can make it worse if they can't work out how to fairly give pri­or­ity to cars com­ing from dif­fer­ent direc­tions. For pak ogah to be ef­fec­tive we need to see of­fi­cial plans in place for re­cruit­ment and for train­ing of set traf­fic rules.”

Due to the lack of reg­u­la­tions con­cern­ing the le­gal­ity of pak ogah, they are of­ten picked up by the po­lice. Yuda and Kuno have each been ar­rested twice and, ac­cord­ing to Yuda, they were taken to the po­lice sta­tion and ques­tioned.

“They asked us why we worked on the streets and took all the money we had made that day out of our pock­ets. Then they just told us not to work as pak

ogah ever again,” Yuda says. “They didn't put us in a cell or any­thing, so we just went back to work the next day.”

Am­rir has been picked up three times. He says the po­lice have told him they don't like the fact he wears a high-vis­i­bil­ity jacket, which they think makes him look like he is work­ing in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity. He finds the raids frus­trat­ing, be­cause he feels he is pro­vid­ing a much­needed ser­vice, even though he knows that some peo­ple ac­cuse pak ogah of caus­ing longer traf­fic jams.

“The most im­por­tant thing to me is that I am work­ing and try­ing to make money do­ing some­thing that helps peo­ple,” he says with a shrug.

De­spite their some­what tense re­la­tion­ship with the po­lice, pak ogah may ben­e­fit from a range of ini­tia­tives the gov­ern­ment is ex­plor­ing to help traf­fic guides make the leap from in­for­mal work­ers to salaried pro­fes­sion­als. One such ini­tia­tive was con­ceived by Jakarta traf­fic po­lice di­rec­tor Halim Pa­garra, who dis­cussed it with Merdeka news­pa­per in June 2017.

“We will call them ‘Su­per­tas'… they will work with us as part of a pro­gramme that we are dis­cussing. Later they will be given of­fi­cial uni­forms,” Pa­garra said in the in­ter­view, us­ing the

term ab­bre­vi­ated from sukarelawan pen­gatur lalu

lin­tas, which means traf­fic reg­u­la­tor vol­un­teer.

There are sim­i­lar plans un­der­way in Medan, and Medan Traf­fic Corps chief In­dra War­man an­nounced in Au­gust 2017 that pak ogah would be trained by the lo­cal po­lice on how to guide the traf­fic more ef­fec­tively.

“We sup­port this plan. It would be very pos­i­tive if the pak ogah be­come vol­un­teers. At the mo­ment a lot of pak ogah ac­tu­ally ex­ac­er­bate the traf­fic sit­u­a­tion. If they are trained, how­ever, the traf­fic po­lice's du­ties will be lighter,” added Ren­ward Para­pat, head of the Medan Trans­porta­tion Agency, ac­cord­ing to Tri­bun

Medan news­pa­per in Au­gust 2017.

If schemes like this ma­te­ri­alise, they should help pak ogah – who risk life and limb to deal with In­done­sia's chronic traf­fic prob­lem – reap ben­e­fits. Be­sides hav­ing salaried jobs, they would re­ceive train­ing to bet­ter en­sure their safety and help them guide traf­fic more ef­fec­tively. But the gov­ern­ment has yet to ap­proach pak ogah such as Am­rir, and he says he has re­ceived no in­struc­tions from the au­thor­i­ties on how to sign up to be­come a li­censed traf­fic guide.

Asked if he would like to work as part of a gov­ern­ment scheme, which would make pak ogah an of­fi­cial job in Medan, Am­rir nods his head and spreads his hands wide. “Sure,” he says. “I'd love that job. Where is it?”

Am­rir is one of many un­trained In­done­sians who risk life and limb as a free­lance traf­fic guide, known lo­cally aspak ogah

• Am­rir started mak­ing money as a pak ogah six years ago when he could no longer work as a cy­cle rick­shaw driver • Kino al­most had his leg bro­ken when a mo­tor­bike taxi driver hit him while he was di­rect­ing traf­fic • Yuda is still in school and says he works as a free­lance traf­fic guide to make money for “treats”

Gani, a cy­cle rick­shaw driver who sym­pa­thises with the stigma that In­done­sia’s traf­fic con­duc­tors face ev­ery dayYuda works for three hours ev­ery day di­rect­ing traf­fic (be­low, left); 17-year-old Kino guides traf­fic in Medan (be­low, right)

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