Dev was promoting cigarettes in a mall in Yogyakarta when a middle-aged man walked up behind her and pressed his groin against her bottom. In her early 20s at the time, Dev says she froze and was too scared to even glance over her shoulder.
“I was shocked,” she tells New Naratif. “I was doing something on the computer at our stand, and he just walked up and pressed himself against me. It felt like ages before my supervisor saw what was happening and yelled at him to go away.”
Despite its status as a rapidly-developing metropolis, Jakarta remains conservative compared to some other Asian capital cities. Outside malls and clubs, it’s uncommon to see women wearing skirts above the knee or tops that reveal their shoulders; those who do are stared at and cat-called. Yet most companies employing sales promotion girls (often known as SPGs) insist they must be scantily clad—many advertisements for SPG recruitment opportunities even specifically state “no jilbab”, meaning they will not accept women who wear the hijab. It’s a strange contrast in a city where more and more schools and universities, including public ones, are requiring female students to wear the headscarf.
“Many people think lowly of SPGs and believe they are available for sex work when this is often not the case”
Dev’s experience is not uncommon. Working as an SPG in Indonesia brings with it many challenges: not only do the estimated 40,000 women working as SPGs(link in Bahasa Indonesia) in Indonesia have high sales targets to meet, they must do so whilst remaining polite in the face of verbal and physical sexual harassment.
“It’s a daily occurrence,” 25-year-old Jakartan Nita Winoto says with a laugh. “We have to be clever and protect ourselves.” She’s worked for multiple brands since she first started out in 2011 at the age of 18. She admits she never wanted to be an SPG; she wanted to go to university but couldn’t afford it.
“My parents were getting older, so they needed me to financially support them,” Winoto explains. “I applied for a job as an SPG, and they said I [physically] met the requirements. It turned out I was good at selling, too, so with all the commissions we get, my salary was almost as high as if I worked in an office.”
Constant sexual harassment
It’s a tough gig. Not only are the hours long and the conditions physically difficult—16% of SPGs interviewed in Medan(link in Bahasa Indonesia) in 2016 had musculoskeletal problems due to wearing heels higher than 5cm for hours on end—the sexual harassment is never-ending.
“Men stare at me; try to hold my hand; talk dirty to me; ask my telephone number; try to persuade me to be a nude model; invite me shopping by saying they’ll spend lots of money on me; and once a middle-aged man asked me to become his second wife,” Winoto says, shaking her head. “He said he’d give me my own shop, a house, a car, and a honeymoon overseas.”
Even Winoto’s own senior colleague from her head office tried to get her to send him nude photos. “He said he’d pay me per photo, but I didn’t want to do anything like that, so I kept rejecting him,” she says. “I had to do it politely, of course.”
“Someone followed me when I left work, too, one night,” she adds. The man followed her on his motorbike, and groped her breast before speeding off. “I felt so stupid,” she says. “I was crying and ran home. I don’t walk home alone anymore.”
“I think it happens because people have a misunderstanding of what SPGs do,” explains Mona*, who worked as an SPG between the ages of 18 and 29. Many people think lowly of SPGs and believe they are available for sex work when this is often not the case. “All SPGs will have experienced this,” Mona says. “It’s just the way we each deal with it that differentiates us.”
Mona is now 31 and quit working when she got married two years ago. She’d worked as an SPG for a private bank and a number of property companies, and says men were regularly inappropriate with her, teasing her and commenting on her body. Some offered her money to sleep with them or be their girlfriends, and one even followed her home.
“One man said to me, ‘You’re so pretty. Instead of exhausting yourself working hard like this, you should be with me. I’ll pay you more than you earn now. All you have to do is satisfy me [sexually]’,” Mona recalls. “Another man directly asked how much it would cost to spend the night with me.”
“The man who followed me home did so because I rejected him,” she says, adding that she felt very scared. “I asked my dad to take me to and from work for a week, but I couldn’t tell him why. Now, I always carry a small folding knife with me. Just in case.”
Danni Ludfi, a former promotional team leader who now runs his own SPG agency, regularly witnessed his female staff being harassed by male customers.
“[Some] men have negative thoughts about SPGs, they see them as socially lower than themselves,” Ludfi says. “But there are some SPGs who do ‘play sideways’ as well, to earn extra money, and their minimalistic clothing doesn’t help either—men see it as inviting. It’s incredibly difficult as a team leader to deal with, because we have to be responsible for our staff’s safety.”
A wider problem
When asked why SPGs attract so much sexual attention from men, most of the women interviewed blame the clothing that their employers make them wear: short skirts or dresses, often skin-tight.
“I think they want us to wear this clothing because it makes people interested in buying our products,” Winoto muses. “And the strategy works—men who weren’t going to buy something do end up purchasing products after seeing us.”
But many SPGs are groped even while fully covered up; Winoto had been wearing a jacket and long trousers when groped by the man on the motorbike. Mona points out that such harassment isn’t just confined to on-duty SPGs, either. “Men say dirty things to us [when we are working], they try to hold our hands,” she says. “But this happened to me when I was in primary school, too. My English and computing teacher used to hold my hand, sit too close, that sort of thing. In the end, I had to stop going to that class, because I was too scared to tell my parents. I was only nine years old at the time.”
“We are contractually obliged to make sure 100% of the people we talk to have a positive interaction, so all I could do was smile bitterly and pretend to turn away to talk to someone else”
Even women who aren’t technically SPGs, such as women doing frontline work for charities, aren’t free from sexual harassment. Nurmufidha Muliana worked for two-and-a-half years in Surabaya for an international aid organisation; her job was to convince passers-by to sign up for monthly donations. She had no “sexy” clothing requirements but was still regularly harassed, as were two of the three friends she worked with.
“I remember one man in particular,” Muliana says. “He kept looking up and down my body, even though I was fully covered. We chatted for a bit and I got him to give a donation, then he said ‘Now I’ve helped you out. I’ve got two wives—would you like to be my third?’ We are contractually obliged to make sure 100% of the people we talk to have a positive interaction, so all I could do was smile bitterly and pretend to turn away to talk to someone else.”
Many of the SPGs New Naratif spoke to want to get out of the business but say that the money is too good to seriously consider working elsewhere. Smaller jobs such as selling shampoo start at around IDR175,000 (US$12.25) per day, in line with Jakarta’s minimum monthly wage of IDR3.6 million (US$262). Bigger gigs, like those offered by big cigarette brands, can pay up to an impressive IDR500,000 (US$36.35) a day. Young women with demanding financial obligations and limited opportunities find it difficult to turn their backs on the job, no matter how much they hate the way they’re treated.
Unlike domestic workers, there are there are no efforts to unionise or develop official networks. Women’s activists, too, have paid little attention to the issue so far, focusing instead on broader anti-sexual harassment initiatives.
Winoto, though, maintains she would prefer to work in an office. “You know, wearing nice office clothes, so that no one stares at me anymore,” she says. She admits that it’s probably a pipe dream as employers prefer university graduates. For now, she continues looking for SPG work, while hoping that something better will come along one day.
* Name changed at the interviewee’s request.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to join our movement to create space for research, conversation, and action in Southeast Asia, please join New Naratif as a member—it’s just US$52/year (US$1/week)!
Kate Walton is a queer feminist activist living in Jakarta, Indonesia. She is the founder of the Jakarta Feminist Discussion Group, and one of the organisers of Women's March Jakarta and Feminist Fest 2017. Kate is on Twitter at @waltonkate.