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Indonesia in Focus

Indonesians in Focus: Wiwik Lo

Username By Barrie | October 22nd, 2007 | Comments No Comments

mini-wiwik-lo.jpgThe end of Ramadhan in mid-October is a time of reconciliation and the seeking of forgiveness. It is also an occasion for family gift giving. That is not easy if you are among Indonesia’s 2.5 million overseas workers who want to send home presents or cash. Bank transfers are probably the safest, though heavy commissions are often charged for exchanging the local currency into rupiah, and then shifting it from bank to bank. And for many Indonesian migrant workers (TKI) banks are strange and forbidding institutions.

Giving relatives in Indonesia a cash withdrawal card they can use at an ATM is handy, though only if you can trust them not to lend the card to others.

Trust is a factor in short supply in Indonesia, according to Hong Kong entrepreneur Wiwik Lo. She should know; before she became the joint owner of a major trading company in the former British colony she was a migrant worker from a village near Blitar in East Java.

In that position she saw workers regularly being cheated out of their wages, and not always by immoral bureaucrats and businesspeople. So-called friends and even close family members found their honesty hard tested when entrusted with carrying a big sum on behalf of a domestic worker.

Sometimes not all the money arrived at the destination. Stories abound of cash and courier vanishing.

“I don’t know why there’s so much dishonesty,” said Wiwik, 34, now a joint director of JIL Indonesia Limited. “Corruption is a serious problem.”

So with her husband David she sought a solution; why not set up a business that allows the TKI to pay the money to a reputable firm that then arranges for goods, not cash, to be delivered to the domestic worker’s family back home?

The idea was an instant snap-on. What started as a one-room two-person show in a harbor-side shopping center has now spread to two floors and 140 employees in Hong Kong and Indonesia.

Every month 16 containers full of goods for Indonesian families leaves the Hong Kong port. During Idul Fitri that number has jumped to 21. JIL is now planning to expand into Macau, Taiwan and Thailand.

The company offers several services; for HK$429 (US$55) a 45 kilogram sembako (basic necessities) parcel will be delivered directly to the TKI’s family wherever they live in the main islands of the archipelago.

Alternatively the domestic worker can do their own buying in Hong Kong and have the goods packed and sent door-to-door back to Indonesia for HK$10 ($1.30) a kilogram.

It used to cost HK $14 but other companies noting JIL’s success have tried to undercut the business.

“We’ve had to trim our profit margin, but our business has increased,” Wiwik said. “Turnover is huge and growing. We have to run two shifts a day to cope.”

Another option is for the TKI to select and pay for bigger goods like motorcycles, refrigerators and television sets from a catalog in Hong Kong. Agents then buy in Indonesia and organize for direct delivery to the selected recipient.

Wiwik, who arrived in Hong Kong as a naive and nervous teenager 15 years ago, is now one of the most famous Indonesian maid-to-made-it stories in the region, appearing on television and sponsoring Independence Day events and welfare programs for the TKI.

She has become a Hong Kong citizen and taught herself Cantonese which she handles fluently. Her intimate knowledge of Indonesian behavior and thinking has helped her establish systems that she thinks are close to 100 percent cheat proof.

It is not enough that the donor should sign a consignment note authenticating contents; she also has her photo taken alongside the packaging with the dispatch number so she cannot claim a mix up later — though the most devious sometimes argue that the picture has been doctored.

Packing has to be tightly supervised to ensure pornographic VCDs and other baddies are not included. They also have to watch for maids using the service to smuggle commercial goods into Indonesia for resale on behalf of businesspeople.

The company tries to employ Indonesians but the Hong Kong government bans male TKI. So almost all the lugging and heaving at JIL has to be done by Indonesian women.

Goods are triple-packed in Hong Kong to deter pilfering by dishonest drivers carting the goods to villages in Indonesia. If the contents do not arrive as listed, or the carrier claims an extra fee, he is penalized by the company double the value of the attempted rip-off.

“We guarantee that we’ll deliver,” Wiwik said. “It’s important in business to treat customers with respect and handle their complaints seriously. If the listed goods don’t arrive we can be contacted by phone and will trace the problem.

“Usually it turns out that family members have plundered the package and stolen the sandals for Mom before she can open the box.

“We have to be very careful in selecting staff and agents. There has to be a strong and close relationship between workers and bosses. I delegate responsibility. If I catch anyone cheating or being idle they get one warning. If they do it again, they’re out.”

Wiwik, and her husband David, who she met through a mutual friend in Jakarta, are hands-on bosses. In the chaos of the packing, storing and checking they are everywhere. Little slips past their sharp-eyed attention.

“We work as a team,” Wiwik said. “I came from a poor but strong farming family where I was taught to work hard. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

“Unfortunately Indonesians have a reputation for laziness. We are also disadvantaged by our love of protocol and status. I’m not the sort of woman who wants to leave business to my husband and lead a social life dressed in the best batik lording it over others. I don’t look down on anyone.

(A major complaint by maids is the contempt shown to them by their fellow citizens working for airlines and the government.)

“There are huge opportunities for business in Hong Kong. I’d be so happy if others could find success. I just wish Indonesia was as organized and disciplined as other nations. When I go back to Indonesia I feel so much pity for the people.

“Maybe it will change some day. Maybe. But the pressure has got to come from below.

“I want to show the people of Hong Kong through my company that Indonesians are capable, and can be as good in business as anyone else.”

The writer(Duncan Graham) is an award-winning journalist residing in Surabaya. He has an excellent websiteIndonesia Now

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