• Tatiana Putra

Help! I need somebody! (Indonesian household staff)

Halo teman-teman' this translates to "hello friends". Welcome back to the blog!

Today we are still pushing our way through the series What Makes Jakarta, Jakarta (to me) and we are discussing one of the WEIRDEST things about Jakarta!

(I should probably say “one of the things that took the most time getting used to” but I'ma be real with you guys… at first it was REALLY WIERD)

Indonesian household staff!

When I first visited Indonesia I was a bit shocked to find that my husband’s family home included a live-in housekeeper who attended to our room and laundry every day. A cook who helped cook the family meals and a driver. This was a normal thing for him and is actually a normal thing for most middle to upper class Indonesians. But it did feel like I stepped off the plane from America into an episode of Downton Abbey!

So, in an attempt to understand a major part of Indonesian culture, let’s do a little explaining about household staff!

To quote an earlier post: Houses vary with how many staff they hire but it is not uncommon for people to have at least one person who works for them, if not multiple staff.

Very common staff could include:

-a housekeeper (pembantu),

-a driver (b/c did you read what I wrote about the traffic?!),

-a nanny (sometimes one nanny per child),

-a cook,

-a gardener and/or handyman (or both),

-and maybe even a security guard (satpam) for the front of the house or to guard the complex.

I’ve even heard of some families that hire a person to help them oversee all the staff, because if you have a lot of staff it could be useful.

Hiring household staff in Jakarta is very affordable. I won’t go into what we pay our staff but I will say that minimum wage in Indonesia for full time staff is 3.940.000 rupia a month (about the equivalent of $282 a month)

Because of the affordability you may find most upper/middle class/expat homes, at the very least, employ a housekeeper.

Some things to keep in mind:

-Having household staff is typically a part of everyday life for middle/upper class Indonesians and expats.

-Household staff are employees not servants. You may find it weird that I just wrote that but because I did not have a category for household staff, my mind automatically went to the category of servants. This is also probably due to the fact that it is not common for middle class Americans to have household staff but more than likely due to the fact that there is a more visible power distance distinction in Indonesian culture than there is in America. According to the The Hofstede Insights Culture Compass (a very handy tool if you are ever interested in the differences between cultures), Indonesia ranks 78 in power distance (whereas America rates 40). This is pretty significant because this means that Indonesians are pretty accepting about the distribution of power... of course there are exceptions and I don't want to make gross characterizations of all Indonesians but this is more than likely a part of the culture that you will experience when coming into contact with household staff.

Here is how The Hofstede Insights Culture Compass describes what this high rating of power distance looks like in Indonesia

“Being dependent on hierarchy, unequal rights between power holders and non power holders, superiors are in-accessible, leaders are directive, management controls and delegates. Power is centralized...Employees expect to be told what to do and when. Control is accepted and managers are respected for their position. Communication is indirect and negative feedback hidden"

[I would say this is definitely true in the employee boss relationship].

"High Power Distance also means that Indonesian co-workers would expect to be clearly directed by the boss or manager – it is the classic Guru-Student kind of dynamic that applies to Indonesia.”

So all that to say when you meet a friend’s housekeeper or hire staff for yourself it is not uncommon for the staff to present themselves as extremely shy or subservient. It was this combination of the acceptance of the power distance level and the demeanor towards me is what made me feel uncomfortable.

I think what was most uncomfortable for me was that I didn’t want to “boss anyone around” but over time I saw how it created a lot less stress for myself and whoever was trying to help me by being direct. I was still being kind but my directness was providing a lot of less guesswork for the household staff to figure out!

In the book Culture Shock Jakarta there is a description of a housekeeper that I find very accurate. It reads:

Broom peddler making and selling brooms

“Get a good pembantu and you need never lift a finger again…She’s the first one up every morning. By the time you wake up, your house will have been tidied and your yard swept out. This is probably what woke you up—the scraping sound of her broom. Your breakfast will be underway and the subject of any shopping that needs doing that day will have been mentioned.”


For two years we employed a lady who lived with us and worked as our nanny and housekeeper but about three months ago we thought it best to no longer employ a live in nanny and employ two live out part time ladies to help us. This was a very difficult decision seeing that we employed our live in nanny since Elena was 5 months old but it was the best decision for our family.

“Your household staff will play a huge role in your personal life in Jakarta.”
Our nanny carrying Elena to the playground. Elena sure does know how to milk being carried around.

Having a live in staff person was the best and hardest thing to adjust to my first two years in Jakarta. I briefly mentioned getting used to the power distance dynamic (which was pretty difficult for me!) but there were other cultural elements that factored into our decision to not have a live in housekeeper/nanny. Maybe I will write about them in a later blog post but, currently, having two part time employees has been amazing.

In conclusion, just know that Jakarta has a lot of people and a big part of the economy and the distribution of wealth is hiring people to do jobs around your house, drive you around or to help you babysit your children (in fact you would be hard pressed to find someone to babysit your children because Jakarta is such a nanny culture!)

If you are moving to Jakarta or come to visit, know that this is a very normal part of the culture and though it could be shocking at first, hiring good household staff can be a great way to maintain sanity in a very hard city to live in.

So with that said. Thanks for reading! I hope this post made sense and if it didn't or you have questions- ask me! Or if you have anything to add- feel free to tell me your thoughts!




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