Selected postings from east-timor (reg.easttimor)

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, the PST.]

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 laws.

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 up quickly.

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 far more.

"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 imported.

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 lives.

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