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Child labor in Bali

One aspect of Bali that will immediately stand out to westerners is the prevalence of child labor. In the west there are sharply drawn laws determining when a kid can work and for how long. Here in Bali such laws get blurred and bent. Social dynamics and economic realities mean many children end up working rather than going to school. This may seem weird and also sad to a westerner, but the reasons for it go way back.

Bali culture has been referred to by some as the perfect form of socialism, with every member of the community required to participate in work and village activities. This extends to children, who gather with the rest of the family to help prepare for ceremonies, meals and look after animals. The Hindu concept of dharma, means that one has a certain duty to sacrifice effort. In rural Bali one will often see fairly young children driving their younger sibling to school on a motorbike, the attitude being ‘they can drive when they’re old enough’. This also extends to drinking and sexual relations.

Rural Bali offers a simpler life than in the city areas. Areas such as East Bali operate on a much lower budget than Kuta due to the lack of industry (tourism / manufacturing etc.) in many areas.

Under Indonesian law children under the age of 14 are not allowed to work and those under 18 are not allowed to do hazardous work. Of course the reality is quite different, with young kids begging at traffic lights, selling snacks on the sidewalk and working in the family warung / shop. Even construction is done by kids not yet old enough for high school.

The Balinese handicraft industry employs thousands of people and one can see items being produced in the the Kuta area, such as bead work, drums, paintings etc. The younger kids from areas like East Bali will start out doing work such as sanding, and other repetitive work. Older kids will learn to use simple tools such as hammer and chisel to construct wooden items. Safety procedures are nil, with paint and varnish being used in areas with insufficient ventilation and fire codes non-existent.

One attitude among poorer villagers is that high school is a waste of time, considering there are not enough jobs in rural areas. Better to earn and learn doing a simple manufacturing job, meanwhile supporting the family. All across the developing worked the idea that the oldest kid is sacrificed to help feed the family is ingrained.

As in many impoverished parts of the world, Bali’s rural areas have a cyclical problem. Low education means following along with everyone else (starting a family a young age and continuing to produce kids), it also means limiting one’s own chances in life by saddling oneself with responsibility. Corruption means that money given by the government for infrastructure, such as schools and educational materials, gets diverted. One high school teacher from East Bali told me personally that he has to falsify receipts for books, so that the school governors can pocket the cash. What chance is there when the educators are ripping off the school? Encouraging Balinese to seek higher education is a great thing, though out of their reach economically. One avenue might be online courses.

The East Bali Poverty Project has the motto ‘Helping them to help themselves’. This NGO implements community development programs in areas of education, health and agriculture. Is possible to sponsor a child’s education for 1 year ($300) via the website.

Balinese kids who do end up in Kuta working the streets or making handicrafts do have one huge advantage over those back in the village, they learn to speak English. With guidance many young Balinese end up reasonably successful.