The Nightclubs Workers and Pandemic that Caught Them with No Choice

It was six at dusk and a small alley in West Jakarta looked deserted compared to the days before the pandemic when this area became even more “alive” as evening came. Now, the doors to the nightclubs on the right side of the alley were closed. The pandemic has stopped the pulse of this area.

That afternoon we had an appointment to meet Rina — not her real name — who works as a manager at one of those nightclubs to talk about the impact of the pandemic on her community. She is one of the 300+ program participants who have received COVID-19 risk information and prevention education from Iwan, one of LeaN On caseworkers under Kusuma Buana Foundation and Human Initiative supervision.

Illustration: Rina listened to the latest information about COVID-19 from Iwan, a LeaN On caseworker whose task is to conduct COVID-19 risk communication outreach under the supervision of the Kusuma Buana Foundation and Human Initiative

Rina warmly welcomed us to the waiting room of her workplace. As we entered the building, we could see a simple hand washing facility standing right next to the entrance. The room was dominated by empty sofas where the workers usually waited for their clients. According to Rina, it has been one full year since the building was left unused. She occasionally visits it to clean the neglected rooms.

Our conversation flowed and Rina shared how government regulations to close the nightclubs for pandemic control seriously affect their welfare. “We’ve been closed for a year now. There’s no income at all. The girls (referring to her co-workers) often ask me when we will be operating again. They need money for food. And I could only say I don’t know,” said Rina.

In her 25 years long experience working in the night entertainment scene, Rina claimed that this pandemic is the hardest one for her and the community to deal with. She revealed that they have been struggling to survive from one week to another. “Sometimes, one of the girls would text me on WhatsApp saying that she hasn’t eaten anything since morning. I would just tell her to come to my place and share whatever food we have. That’s all I can do since I don’t have any income either.”

According to Rina, some former full-timers at the same nightclub are now looking for opportunities elsewhere. She further explained that while some of the girls chose to return to their hometowns, the majority stay in Jakarta, trying to find clients online and relying on daily-rented rooms with a relatively lower price to do the job. They also charge the client lower than the typical before-pandemic rates because the most important thing is to bring food on the table for the next few days.

When asked about the prevention protocol adherence among her co-workers, Rina stated that they are generally very compliant. “Sometimes, they would still come here when they get bored (at home). They always put the mask on and wash their hands first. I won’t let them in if they don’t comply with the protocols. But the thing is, we can’t control the compliance when they are with the clients,” said Rina. She added, “The good thing is they consistently take a shower right after meeting the clients. They always do that.”

The educational posters for COVID-19 prevention from the LeaN On caseworker were displayed near the entrances to several nightclubs in the area

As part of the efforts to protect her community, Rina has been actively forwarding the latest COVID-19 information that she collected from various sources to her co-workers, including the ones she received from Iwan during the LeaN On outreach. According to Rina, the prevention education she received from the caseworker complemented the information they learned from online sources.

Regarding preventive behavior, Rina disclosed that maintaining safe distance is the most difficult one for her co-workers out of the five protocols currently promoted by the government. The nature of their livelihood is one factor. Another reason is that many of the workers live in shared rented-rooms to cut the expenses.

Many of her former co-workers are trying to make a living in other places, which is a concern to Rina as their adherence to COVID-19 prevention protocol is unknown. She believes if they work in established facilities designated as nightclubs, they can at least ensure protocol compliance, including frequent disinfection of every corner of the building.

Illustration: Rina used the handwashing facility that she originally provided for the clients and workers

From Rina’s perspective, the ban on nightclubs operations for pandemic control has not necessarily stopped the core activities of this business. The reality is clear for the workers when they have to choose between living without food and coping with the risk of being exposed to COVID-19. Many chose the latter and are bound to offer services in places with hardly any support for prevention protocol.

However, the thing that worries Rina the most is how her co-workers will survive the pandemic’s economic impact. With regret painted on her face, Rina told us about one girl, a breadwinner who died during the pandemic shortly after reporting that she and her family no longer had enough money to buy food.

“A few days earlier, she texted me and some other friends saying that she only had 20 thousand in her pocket. We tried to visit her. Unfortunately, since she lived in a densely populated area, the government has blocked the two existing access to her house (under the pandemic control regulation). So she could not go out of the area, and we couldn’t go in either,” explained Rina. A few days later, she got the news that the girl had passed away.

Rina and her co-workers fell out of options to survive. Most workers came from outside Jakarta, so they are unsure about applying for social aid assistance given their registered domicile. Rina is a Jakarta resident. She has tried to secure her access to social protection by registering her name at the neighborhood where she — based on her identity card — officially belongs. Unfortunately, the attempt was unsuccessful. The local authority considered her undeserving because she has not lived in the area for a long time. While in the area where she currently lives, she also cannot be listed for social assistance because she is not officially registered as a resident in the area.

Illustration: Many nightclubs around the West Jakarta area were forced to go out of business due to a ban on operations during the pandemic, leaving workers confused and jobless. Furthermore, they also find difficulties in accessing social protection schemes

Thankfully, with the Kusuma Buana Foundation’s support, many LeaN ON caseworkers had actively sourced diverse social aid to alleviate the pandemic’s impact on the program participants. Numerous donations, such as face masks, staple food, and cash, were collected from different donors. However, the available aid was minimal, so not all of the program participants could receive them.

The Jakarta Entertainment Entrepreneurs Association, also known as ASPHIJA, has also tried to advocate for several government agencies to provide social protection for the workers. Sadly, Rina and her co-workers were among those who did not receive any assistance they longed for and were still trying to cope with their dwindling savings and donations from some neighbors. Rina, for instance, gets free lunch from a shop owner nearby every Friday. Meanwhile, other neighbors occasionally donate a small amount of cash for their daily necessities.

“I hope the government will immediately allow the nightclubs to resume operations. We definitely want to comply with the health protocols. I recently heard rumors that we will have to install boundaries in the room. No problem, we will follow (the rules). The most important thing is that the girls and I can afford food and pay the rent,” said Rina full of hopes.

LeaN On by INVEST DM is an inclusive RCCE program that aims to provide access to risk information and education on COVID-19 prevention, including information on available social protection services, for 165 thousand people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups in seven regions in Indonesia. This program is supported by the American people through USAID, and in partnership with BNPB, Kemenkumham, MAJu (The Asia Foundation) and a consortium of partners consisting of Mercy Corps Indonesia, ASB, ThisAble, Human Initiative and AtmaConnect.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the U.S. Government or the USAID.

LeaN On by INVEST DM is a USAID funded COVID-19 risk communications & engagement of people with disabilities & vulnerable groups in seven regencies in Indonesia

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