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Indonesian street vendors face tough times at the airport

Jakarta Globe - July 30, 2009

Ade Mardiyati – In the parking area of the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Sulastri sits gazing into the distance. Beside her is a basket filled with boiled eggs, fish and chicken, individual portions of each packaged in transparent plastic bags. Two medium-sized bags are filled with crispy tempeh. Flies land on the bags, but the 43-year-old mother of two seems not to notice.

A man stops by to buy something, and Sulastri wakes from her wandering thoughts.

"I was just thinking of where I should run in case the security officers come," said Sulastri, who sells food at the airport because her husband is unemployed.

"I usually run as fast as I can with 10 kilos of things in my hands, and then hide in the canteen back there." She is referring to an area located behind the parking lot, well away from the terminal, where airport authorities allow food vendors to set up at no charge. However, Sulastri said, most food and drink vendors prefer to sell from the parking area.

"Few customers know there's a canteen back there," she said. "Here is better. I can still take home at least Rp 40,000 [$4] every day."

Sulastri is constantly on the lookout for raids by security officers that she and about 30 other food vendors in the parking area refer to as the "operation."

"We don't have permission to sell food here, that's why [the security officers] chase us," she said. "But what can I do? I need to feed my family."

Illegal vendors at the airport have been especially wary since late May, when 10 unlicensed shoeshine boys, aged 12 to 16, were arrested by police for betting Rp 1,000 a throw on the outcome of a coin-toss game.

On Monday, the Tangerang District Court found all 10 guilty of gambling. The ruling sparked outrage among child welfare activists, even though the children were sent home to their parents after having spent 29 days in detention prior to and during their trial.

Another female vendor, who declined to give her name, said she understood why the security officers chased food vendors like her. "It is their duty. We can't blame them," she said. "We are illegal here."

Further back, in the designated canteen area, two food vendors said their business was slow.

"I have never sold food in the car park because I don't have the energy to run to escape from the officers when there is a raid," said Mariyah, 60, who has been selling rice, fish, chicken and drinks at the airport for three years now. "But the problem is that it is always quiet here.

"Not many people eat here. I could sell more in the car park. I got here an hour ago and I've only had one customer."

Nur, 53, used to sell food in the parking area before the airport authorities declared it off limits to vendors.

"There are more customers if you walk around," she said. "I actually want to go back to the car park, but I can't, because the officers won't let me. Besides there are too many vendors there already."

For many at the airport, the illegal vendors provide a great convenience, said Samsuar, a taxi driver for the Blue Bird company. "We don't have to go to the canteen as they are everywhere," he said.

There is also a small restaurant stall closer than the canteen, but the food from the car park vendors is cheaper, he said.

Arsa, an ojek (motorcycle taxi) driver with a license to operate at the airport, said he sees food vendors being apprehended by security staff every day.

"I know they don't have permission to operate here, but they help us low-income people by providing cheap food and drinks," he said. "I wouldn't be able to afford to eat at the restaurant on a daily basis. You can ask all the drivers who wait in the carpark area, and I'm sure they'll all say they buy food and drinks from these vendors. Unless you are a very wealthy driver, you can't afford to eat at the restaurant."

For others, the illegal vendors and service workers, such as the shoeshine boys, are simply a nuisance. Airport security officer Sugianto said the illegal vendors and other workers made airport visitors uncomfortable. "They are everywhere," he said.

Roch Agus, the airport head of security, said his staff conducted raids at least three times a day, first sending out plainclothes officers to see where violators were gathered. Uniformed officers in cars are then called in for a joint operation that can include regular security personnel, police and the military. In one operation they may catch as many as 60 to 70 violators, usually food vendors, perfume sellers and trash pickers.

"They will be held in the airport security office for four hours and then be released, along with their stuff," Roch said. "They have to sign an agreement saying they won't do it again, and if they are caught a maximum of three times, then they are handed over to the police, who will take them to a detention and rehabilitation center."

The shoeshine boys who were prosecuted weren't caught in one of the daily raids, he said, but were spotted by airport police officers who arrested them for gambling. "If they hadn't been gambling, my office would have dealt with them."

Tamah, 50, sells cakes, coffee and tea in the car park. She said she was caught on Thursday morning just as she arrived to work. "I was taken to the security kiosk, where they held me for two hours. They basically told me not to sell food here again."

Security officers also caught her on Wednesday, she said, knocking her off an ojek when she tried to escape. "I know it's illegal to sell food here, but what can I do? My husband died and I need money."

Maman, a driver for a businessman, goes to the airport about once a week. "That's why I know most of the food vendors here," he said. "Most drivers buy food and drinks from them. Only airport employees or people with lots of money eat in the restaurant."

At the restaurant, a cup of coffee can cost Rp 5,000, he said, while the vendors sell a cup for Rp 2,000. "If you ask me if these vendors violate the law," he said, "why don't you look at those people who are corrupt? Are they arrested? No, right? Food vendors here risk getting caught every day. Poor people never win, you know?"

Unlike illegal food vendors at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport and despite the arrest of their friends in May, the shoeshine boys at the airport aren't bothered by the presence of security officers.

Airport security officer Sugianto said, "Even if we call [the shoeshine boys], they just look at us and say 'What? I didn't steal anything.'?"

"Watch this," he said, pointing to a shoeshine boy a few meters away. "You'll see, he won't be scared."

Sugianto's colleague called the boy, who came up to him. Looking relaxed, the boy asked, "What's up?"

Three other shoeshine boys, Yanto, Azis and Yusuf, were joking with one another and laughing, as they stood holding shoe polish and brushes. Yanto and Azis have been working at the airport from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., before going to school, for the past four years. They said they had to earn money to help their parents pay for their schooling.

"We just hang around here, offering our services to people," 14-year-old Yanto said. "I have earned Rp 5,000 so far [today]."

Yanto is aware that shoeshining is not allowed in the airport area but said, "as long as I don't commit crimes like stealing, I believe I don't do anything wrong."

"Yanto and I have both been caught often," Azis said with a laugh. "I can't remember how many times. "Yusuf has only been here for one month so he hasn't experienced that yet."

When caught, Yanto said, they are taken to a security office. "We are just told to sit down, and then they tell us that shoeshining is not allowed here. Sometimes they tell us to clean the floor. That's all," he said. "That doesn't scare us, you know. It doesn't bother us." Azis said he and all the boys who shine shoes at the airport come from the same neighborhood in Rawajati, Tangerang, near the airport, and are all friends.

One passenger who had just had his shoes polished by one of the boys said he was not bothered by their presence. "They're not pushy, if you say no they'll go," Sudradjat Selorudjito said. "And they don't charge a set price, they leave it up to the customer."

Sudradjat said he understood that illegal vendors and workers were not supposed to be around Soekarno-Hatta, because it is an international airport and they could give a bad impression of Indonesia, especially to foreigners.

"But if you think about the economic situation in our country, it is understandable that these poor people earn their living this way," he said. "This is the reality."