|Subject: GLW: Workers confront
discrimination, poor conditions
Green Left Weekly, Issue #403 May 3, 2000
EAST TIMOR: Workers confront discrimination, poor conditions BY AKARA
REIS [Akara Reis is the vice-president of the Socialist Party of Timor,
DILI -- As workers prepare to celebrate their first May Day in a free
East Timor, their pay and conditions of work remain very low, especially
compared with the vast sums paid to foreign workers employed by the United
Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET).
Outbursts of worker unrest are increasing, as are protests by job
seekers dissatisfied by the lack of available work for them. Timorese
workers at the charity World Vision went on strike for a day on April 3,
followed on April 7 by workers at the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees (UNHCR); both sets of workers were demanding better conditions
and treatment by their employers.
Personal disputes between employees and their bosses and between
foreign and local employees are also becoming increasingly common.
Organisations such as the East Timor Human Rights Commission are now
frequently being asked to mediate, in the absence of enforceable labour
Workers' bargaining position is relatively weak. Unemployment is high
and employers are using this as a threat; many workers are afraid that
strike action or any other challenge will cost them their jobs.
The economic chaos in East Timor, which make UNTAET, foreign
non-government organisations and a handful of foreign-owned businesses the
main employers, has created a new form of dependency.
This may even worsen when the emergency period ends in June and then
worsen again when the UN transitional period ends, which is anticipated to
occur in October 2001. Then the economy, now so dependent on the foreign
NGOs and UNTAET, will be hit hard if a strong local economy is not built
A major source of worker dissatisfaction is the disparity in working
conditions between local and international labour. The guidelines for the
employment of local workers by humanitarian agencies specify that the wage
range for a worker deemed "unskilled" should be between
20-25,000 rupiah per day (approximately $5-6). Imported workers are paid
"Unskilled" workers include those employed as wharf labourers,
security guards, distribution workers, cleaners and office
"boys". The wages they receive are insufficient, especially in
Dili where the cost of living is very high.
Wharf labourers, for example, enjoy little job security. They are hired
on a first-come-first-served basis each day and depend entirely on the
schedule of ships requiring loading and unloading. On the wharves, workers
are expected to carry 50 kilogram bags of rice, which are then distributed
as humanitarian aid by agencies such as CARE. These workers are paid
Rp20,000 per day.
Those employed to clean roads by UNTAET are paid daily rates of
Rp25-30,000. Whilst they work a full eight hours, they are not provided
any meal and transport allowance.
One reason for the massive gap between earnings for local and imported
workers is that the local Timorese workers are deemed
"unskilled". Computer skills and English are considered a
prerequisite for the better-paying jobs.
Such skills were difficult to learn when there was a war being fought
against Indonesia; educational opportunities were strictly limited. Even
in spite of that, there are still many Timorese students and graduates who
could be trained to perform some of this work; they're just not being
given the opportunity.
There are many other jobs that Timorese could perform which are being
given to imported workers, such as driving earthmoving machines, painting,
construction work and security. There are even cases where two security
guards are being paid different rates, because one is local and one is
Discrimination also seems to stretch to management treatment of
workers. On April 8 a disagreement between two workers at an UNTAET
warehouse led to management immediately suspending the local worker --
without even investigating whether it was him or the imported worker who
was at fault.
Timorese workers will need to organise themselves in each workplace if
they are to stop this discrimination and win better wages and conditions.
This is now starting to happen in a number of enterprises and offices in
Dili and trade unions are beginning to form. Meetings are now occurring in
many workplaces, discussing unionism and what a union should do.
Workers' knowledge and consciousness will need to be raised even
further than this, though, to understand the need for a workers' political
party which can fight to replace the system of workers' oppression with
another system, socialism, under which workers are in control of their own
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