CFMEU and CARE in East Timor dispute

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CFMEU and CARE in East Timor dispute

By Michael Bull

MELBOURNE — Negotiations have begun between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the aid agency CARE Australia, after some bizarre incidents occurred during reconstruction efforts in East Timor.

In late September, the union, in conjunction with CARE Australia, agreed to build 14 prefabricated buildings, to be used as emergency shelter for those in need.

The buildings, each of which is roughly the size of a small town hall, were to be constructed in Australia, then transported to different locations in East Timor.

According to the plan drawn up between CARE and the CFMEU, Australian building workers would then work with Timorese workers in a "train the trainer" exercise, while erecting the buildings.

What should have been a simple exercise turned sour when the initial construction crew arrived in Dili on November 1. All of the union's tools and materials for the first shelter had arrived safely, but the $1000 worth of food bought by the union had disappeared. The union also wrongly presumed that water would be provided on location.

Tensions developed when it became apparent that CARE did not have enough reserves of food and water to cater for the building gang.

Union secretary Martin Kingham arrived in Dili on November 4 to find the building crew the worse for wear. The only form of nutrition available to the workers was a generous supply of beer that, fortunately, had not gone missing as had the other rations.

The union and CARE were also at loggerheads over local labour. CARE initially advertised for workers, but on finding hundreds of people applying, the union went directly to Falintil and asked it to supply 20 of its most willing. Falintil, looking to find work for its soldiers as parts of the force were to be demobilised, was happy to comply.

Following negotiations, the union workers employed their own cook, had water supplied by the Australian army, tents set up on the construction site and a willing work force. However, worse was yet to come.

As the first of the 14 buildings was being erected, employees of CARE began instructing the building workers on where to put "their" airconditioners, or where "their" light switch or power point should be placed.

It became clear that the building was probably not going to be used for the purpose that the union and CARE had agreed.

Complaints and accusations between CARE and the union reached a peak when the workers were asked to leave not only the site, but the entire country.

When they refused, Interfet forces were brought in to ask them to leave. A stand-off ensued between the army and the union but, after negotiations, the workers were allowed to complete the building.

As a result, the CFMEU has suspended work on the remaining 13 buildings. The union has entered discussions with the National Council of Timorese Resistance to complete the project under its guidance.

Sources told Green Left Weekly that Xanana Gusmao has lodged a complaint with the UN over CARE Australia's behaviour. The Australian army and the workers still enjoy a good relationship, which reportedly involves a "beer for ice" exchange program.