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In Jakarta, Making a Living in the ‘Formal’ Economy not Easy for All

Vendors on the ground floor of a residential block at Rusun Marunda. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

JAKARTAIbu Mawar and her family moved into Rusun Marunda four months after being evicted from their home under an elevated toll road (Tol Sedyatmoko). Rusun Marunda is one of several large government-subsidized housing projects in Jakarta and families relocated into these complexes are typically given three to six months of rent-free accommodation to help offset the economic stress of eviction. Family Mawar were given three months, after which time they would be required to pay rent–a financial obligation they had not been subjected to for many years.

Over the past four months, the family’s relationship to the rent obligation has evolved from fearful anxiety to steely determination. Three months ago, mere mention of the topic brought Ibu Mawar to tears; however, after making good on the first payment, her tone has changed.

Woman scavenging cardboard from the roadside in Jakarta's CBD. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

For years, the family has managed to survive on income from a diverse set of odd jobs. At times, both she and her husband have held jobs in the “formal” sector of Jakarta, such as factory or construction work; and at others, they have been completely reliant on the “informal” sector, patching together an income from the market value of scavenged materials found throughout the city. While the ability to generate an income within the "informal" sector is reliable, that income is hardly consistent. At the time of their move, and still to this day, the family remains part of the “informal” job sector of Jakarta.

Street vendors outside Grand Indonesia Mall. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

Typical street in the center of Jakarta with vendors lining the roadway. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

A significant portion–more than 60 percent–of Jakarta's economy is considered "informal." From transportation services, such as motorbike taxis and mini-buses, to street vendors selling everything from food to petrol, the informal market of Jakarta is one of the most consistent elements of the city. Open space is opportunity. Yet the conditions created by streets, sidewalks, parks, and intersections packed full of vendors contributes to problems of traffic congestion and environmental degradation. To improve overall city function and image, efforts have been made to formalize the operations and locations of street vendors. Unregulated and unmaintained, however, these programs tend to fail.

Attempts to regulate the practices of street vendors extends to Rumah Susun complexes (affordable housing projects). The ground floor of the typical Rumah Susun project is an open plan, intended as space for community activities. As most residents have moved into the Rumah Susun from one of the city's many kampungs (informal settlements), the ground floor takes on many characteristics of that former life. Streets are active zones of commerce in every kampung, teaming with warungs (cafes), small shops, childcare and entertainment. As the lifestyle of the kampung is translated into vertical housing units, people try to meet these same economic and social goals in the new space they are given.

Childcare, cafe, and small shops on the ground floor of Rusah Susun, Cipenang Besar. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

Typically, these vendor spaces are self-organized and allocated so that all interested parties can have access. While not considered part of the "formal" economy of Jakarta, the ability to have a regular space and to build a consistent customer-base allows one a certain economic security. For many, this is as close to the "formal" economy as they may ever reach.

"We are very happy and determined to keep our place (at Rusun Marunda)..but we know a stable home requires a stable income. It is difficult, but we are working hard... we hope our struggle will payoff."

Since moving to Rusun Marunda, Ibu Mawar has been hoping to open up a small warung on the ground floor of her building. For the first time in a very long time, she trusts that her home is secure; yet, she is very aware of the price of that security–finding and maintaining a reliable and consistent income. Recently, however, opening a shop at Rusun Marunda has become more difficult. To quell the rise of street vendors, the government has put into place a series of regulations and formal structures to "normalize" commercial activities on-site.

At Rusun Marunda, individual vendor stalls are being constructed to regulate the numbers and locations of vendors on-site. Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros.

Vendor space is no longer available for open-distribution; and, eligibility to rent space is determined by both a lottery and an "opening" fee. Marunda is not overrun with street vendors. In fact, the homogeneity of the market in this part of the city limits the area's economic vitality. Families like Ibu Mawar's live on the hope that lies in great struggle. Yet, from an outside perspective, it seems prudent to question the necessity of formalizing an already crippled and isolated economy.

Christina Leigh Geros, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is a designer, researcher, and educator whose project gives voice to the communities of the Ciliwung River through an interactive website mapping stories that expose the relationships between urbanism, ecology, and politics.

Follow my daily explorations of Jakarta on Twitter and Instagram: @clgeros

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