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The Struggling Entertainer: Occupational Vulnerability While Living Near Poverty


“When I was young, I have three big dreams: to work in Port of Tanjung Priok, because it is the house of cash; to work in Thamrin or Sudirman, because that’s where the luxurious offices are based; and to be an entertainer.”

Larudi is his name. He dropped out of University because a crisis of household finances entered his home once upon a time, which disabled his family’s ability to pay for tuition fees and other university-related expenses. Belonging to a low-income household conditioned Larudi to gracefully accepted decisions made to cut down expenses to satisfy the most fundamental needs – even though it meant he would never finish his Bachelor’s.

Not a year later, Larudi started the pantomime in 2002, hoping to be a full-time entertainer – which can at least satisfy his third dream. He gathered his 15 friends and set up his own establishment: the clown company. Back then, he was able to generate revenue twice the minimum wage stipulated by the Government – and his capability allowed him to help his friends monetise their skills and satisfy their respective household’s needs. He became recognised for his talent and establishment – and people began to tag him with the legendary nickname “Rudi Badut.”

While the nickname remains his ownership, his profession gradually detached from his body three months after the Coronavirus pandemic. June 2020 was the marker of Rudi Badut’s forced departure from the clown industry. He has since only able to secure one job for himself and his colleagues. June was the month when he began to look for alternative sources of income for his household, including his wife and three children.

For colleagues who resided outside of Pademangan, where Rudi lives and works, Rudi offered them food and shelter. But due to the pandemic, he lost the ability to help. “We receive money when we performed. So, when the pandemic started to take its effects, I had no choice but to let them know that it is just no longer possible”, Rudi stated.

Rudi had various attempts at economic recoveries, such as by selling fried onion (bawang goreng). By leveraging his networks, he managed to sell the fried onions online through WhatsApp. But the success only lasted five months. Initially, he was able to pocket a monthly income of Rp 1.5 million. But gradually, it declined to around Rp. 300,000-500,000. Can a family of five survive with that? Yet Rudi Badut’s family had to.

He eventually stopped and turned to offer ride services online via WhatsApp. His market consists of neighbours, families, and close-knits. His monthly net income was around Rp 200,000-300,000. He wanted to join established online ride-hailing services like GoJek or Grab, but he was powerless given the current regulation, which stated that the motorcycle could not be bought before 2016, while Rudi bought his in 2013. Age is the natural proxy of the overall health vehicle conditions. However, the regulation creates a division between society and limits the capability of deprived individuals to make a living.

Rudi’s story is not about finding the culprit of economic injustice; anyone who is doing nothing to change the status quo is at fault. People with vulnerable occupations do not always look in peril. The clowns exemplify the unexposed occupational vulnerability – hiding behind smiles and laughter. COVID-19 triggered a forced adaptation. But clowns are entertainers – whose ability to gain depend on their ability to be with the audience, presently. When COVID-19 spread, the clowns’ market was dead, and they were left with one choice to save their professions: create another market or die.

In protecting vulnerable individuals, the social safety net always serves as the primary policy tool. However, the definition of vulnerable individuals erases occupational vulnerability and mainly concentrates on income or consumption levels. Where is justice when some people remain in exclusion?

While Rudi Badut benefitted from the Government’s one-time social assistance for artists amounting to Rp 1,000,000 at the beginning of the pandemic, this type of assistance does not allow people with vulnerable occupations to rebuild their lives or even giving them concrete steps in protecting their professions.

People with vulnerable occupations are constantly living in between poverty and just-enough; they are formally called the ‘near poor’ – people who are not poor by national standards but by definition are living in a vulnerable state. They should be protected too. “Unfortunately, in this country, those who deserve to be protected of their rights are those who beg,” Rudi said. Injustice exists not only in terms of who could eat and who is hungry. But also, in terms of who could always begin again and who only has one attempt at everything.

The Government ought to redesign its employment and labour market policies. Instead of leveraging the State budget to run a pre-employment program for the graduates, why don’t the Government actually protect the existing labour force with vulnerable jobs? In just one shock, they can turn from workers to eligible recipients of social assistance, unlike the unemployed university graduates who have better chances in life.

To simplify struggles is to delay progress in achieving equality in development. Which one, then, should become a development priority: to alleviate poverty or bring people far away from poverty? To reduce unemployment among the graduates or to protect people with vulnerable occupations? To allocate the State budget for classical reasonings of budget spending or observe who should be the main patients of development policy?

In a story like this, one usually anticipates a happy ending, where the main character’s persistence becomes the road to greatness and promotes empowerment narratives. But in this story, we have not reached the climax yet. Whether Rudi Badut and other professional clowns can still entertain is up to society. It is our call, whether we want to protect vulnerable occupations or just watch them buried with the pandemic.

Clowns are entertainers, and we were once told that entertainers cannot ever live wretchedly. But not all troubles are visible in the first how. Sometimes, we have to re-watch to actually notice.

This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 01 Issue 01 — June 2021


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