Maintenance: Shop conditions got you down?

by Paul Hartley

JAKARTA, Indonesia – On a recent Friday afternoon, Ahmad bin Amid sat in his sparsely appointed two-room office several blocks from the bustling Port of Jakarta, known locally as Tanjung Priok, Indonesia’s main conduit for international shipping.

The week’s business was nearly done; the phones were quiet, and the pace of administrative activities at a temporary lull. Outside on a gravel lot, though, four mechanics were hastily repairing three of Amid’s 15 trucks and one of his 15 container chassis. Business had been good lately – “almost too good,” he says – and all available iron would be needed Monday morning to handle next week’s rush of orders.

Amid’s Kartika Maju Transport is one of hundreds of carriers moving freight through the sprawling seaport complex on Jakarta’s north side. Like most small-fleet owners, Amid started with one truck, a lot of hard work and broad ambitions. He actually entered the business, however, on the lowest rung of Indonesia’s trucking industry, working for a while as a driver’s helper. It’s a position with a job description that includes lumper, gopher and kick dog. His ascension through the ranks is quite an accomplishment in a country where commercial success is an iffy proposition, at best. Indonesia is composed of roughly 13,000 islands along the equator between Australia and mainland Asia. It is what social scientists politely call a “developing country.”

The highway system – excluding tollways – is crumbling and overloaded. Corruption among officials is rampant. Crime, often unreported and unpunished, is widespread and rising. And the economy is still wobbly after a near collapse three years ago. Despite the tropical setting, this is no paradise for truckers.

With rare exception, Indonesia’s trucks come in three basic colors: white (for tractors capable of pulling 40-foot containers), green (for tractors capable of pulling 22-foot containers) and yellow (for light-duty straight jobs). These vehicles are plain by North American standards. They lack air-ride suspensions, tubeless radial tires, air brakes, electronic engines, chrome or stainless accents, spacious interiors, and nearly any creature comforts beyond padded vinyl seats and hand-cranked side windows.

But Indonesian truckers don’t seem to mind, having never been pampered with the amenities that help make life on the road bearable. In a country where more than 20 per cent of the population is officially dirt poor, a lot of truckers are just happy to have jobs that support their families, however meagerly.

Amid says Indonesian drivers, once hired, tend to stay with their companies for a long time. And if someone does leave, plenty of replacements are available, willing to work the standard six-day weeks for pay that affords most necessities but no luxuries. Drivers commonly earn a healthy percentage of load revenue, but they must share the money with their helpers, a universal fixture in Indonesian truck cabs. Helpers ride along to handle freight and assist with the assorted and numerous problems that crop up en route. Of these, mechanical failure is surely the most common.

Indonesia’s roadways are littered with trucks, buses and cars in various states of repair. No job is too big or unusual, no parking spot too dangerous. Often, disabled vehicles – or the people repairing them – hog part of a highway lane, further slowing the already sluggish traffic plaguing the area in and around Jakarta, a city of more than 10 million.

At Kartika Maju Transport, Amid’s mechanics work hard to keep the equipment roadworthy. They handle everything from the weekly grease jobs and monthly oil changes to tire repairs, bodywork, clutch replacements and engine overhauls. They even build the company’s container chassis – from scratch. The country’s decrepit road surfaces keep them busy. So do the drivers.

“Clutches are the biggest problem,” Amid says.

The facility, surrounded by high cement walls, has no building big enough to house a tractor or trailer. Repairs are done outside, in the oppressive equatorial heat and humidity, amid the occasional sandstorm and seasonal monsoon. The mechanics, though, appear unaffected by the conditions and do their best to wipe dust and moisture from sensitive parts before re-assembly.

With a goal of expanding his fleet, Amid plans to eventually move to another location. The current site, which he leases from (and shares with) an army post, is well protected, but it’s also so cramped that drivers must leave some of the trucks in customers’ parking lots overnight and on weekends. This, of course, is a security risk.

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