EAST TIMOR: Australian companies are 'worst employers'

July 23, 2003


DILI — More than a year after East Timor's labour code came into effect on May 1, 2002, three of the boards required to implement it — the Minimum Wages Board, the Labour Relations Board (an arbitration body) and the National Labour Board (a policy advisory body)— have yet to be appointed.

In addition, the Registrar for Trade Unions has not been assigned, consequently there are no registered trade unions or employer organisations in East Timor. Many of the unions formed during the period of the UN administration are still active and have completed the paperwork required for registration.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has several projects underway in East Timor, one of which is to deliver services, training and support to the Department of Labour and Solidarity (DLS) in implementing labour law. Adjustments to the code to address weaknesses identified by the ILO have yet to be passed by parliament.

The government's delay in ratifying the new version of the code and appointing the boards leaves East Timorese workers with limited means to demand fair wages and conditions.

The ILO recognises the Trade Union Confederation of Timor Lorosae (KSTL) as the peak trade union body in the country. The KSTL claims to represent 4700 organised workers including teachers, nurses, journalists and those working in the construction, agricultural, maritime and transport sectors.

Founded in February 2001, the KSTL prides itself on being an independent, politically unaligned body acting on behalf of workers. It receives support from the ILO, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the Australian Council of Trade Unions, all of which have made a commitment to provide assistance for the next six months. The KSTL's two main stated objectives are to encourage workers to organise and to provide advocacy and conciliation services.

Another workers' alliance, the National Syndicate Union (UNS), was launched in March 2003. Founded by the Socialist Workers' Union (SBST) and the Port Workers' Union (OTPTL), the UNS cites a membership of 1000 workers. The UNS functions with volunteer staff and has three objectives: to lobby the government over labour issues; to monitor working conditions; and to raise community and workplace awareness about labour matters and the importance of forming unions.

While there are rivalries between the KSTL and the UNS, both alliances are vital in the present political climate. The absence of the Minimum Wages Board means that there is no legal wage standard in East Timor. Both the UNS and the KSTL estimate that the average wage for an East Timorese worker is currently US$2-$5 per day.

I have met waitresses who earn as little as $40 per month for working eight-hour days, seven days a week. Those employed by non-government organisations fare better, receiving around $175 per month.

Given the skyrocketing cost of basic commodities in East Timor, and with unemployment estimated at 75%, these wages are highly inadequate, particularly for workers who must support extended families. UNS chairperson Nelson Correia believes wages should increase three-fold.

"A fair wage for the average worker would be around $15 per day, but workers have no power to demand this. It is the same with working conditions. The labour code sets standards, but with no arbitration board in place to hear cases, employers can do what they want. They know that workers do not have the money to take problems to court."

Various bodies for mediation and advocacy over labour issues have been established. The DLS offers conciliation services, as does the KSTL and a variety of NGOs. ComeAlright is one of the most effective of these. It is an unfunded organisation that workers can access free of charge. Since its inception in 2001, ComeAlright has assisted an increasing number of workers, many of them dissatisfied with the results of the mediation process offered by the DLS.

Agostino Perez is the vice-chairperson of ComeAlright and works as a volunteer conciliator: "Our principle is to find solutions between workers and employers. We also encourage workers to join unions and syndicates to strengthen their collective bargaining power. The most common problems we deal with are unfair dismissal without adequate compensation, low wages and poor working conditions. Often we can solve the problems through mediation but not always."

When disputes cannot be resolved, workers can take legal action, but this is expensive and time consuming. The DLS does not take cases to court and organisations such as ComeAlright have limited means to do so. The alternative is to launch media campaigns, strike and demonstrate. However in a country with such a high rate of unemployment, strikes are risky and can easily result in mass dismissals.

A recent example is that of the Australian-owned Timor Lodge Hotel, where 21 workers were sacked in January after striking for better wages and working conditions. The dispute remains unresolved. Twenty-nine workers sacked by Timor Plumbing and Gas in July 2002 were more successful, and forced the company to pay compensation after ComeAlright supported an extended campaign of demonstrations and attracted media attention.

Both the KSTL and ComeAlright deal with many labour disputes involving Australian companies operating in East Timor. Jose Conceicao da Costa, KSTL president, cites Chubb Security as the worst "worst employers in East Timor".

"We see the same disputes happening again and again. We have dealt with 16 Chubb cases since February 2001 and have three more cases currently on our books. They have a bad reputation for nepotism, for sacking workers in order to employ family and friends. In every instance, we have found a solution, but it is very time consuming. Conciliation has become our main activity and has taken time away from workplace organising, which was our original priority."

ComeAlright's most recent success was in negotiating compensation for 31 workers dismissed from the Australian-owned Tata Service mechanical workshop. The company cited "economic conditions" as the reason for the dismissals and claimed it could not afford to pay the workers the three months' wages they were entitled to, in accordance with the labour code. The workers approached ComeAlright for assistance and a deal was struck in mid-June, with the company paying 44 days' wages, plus holiday pay and overtime.

These examples highlight the importance of grassroots labour organising in East Timor. However, the general industrial relations picture remains bleak. High unemployment, combined with government apathy in implementing the labour code, continue to undermine the rights of East Timorese workers on a daily basis.

[The UNS and ComeAlright can be contacted at <nelsoncrr@yahoo.com>. KSTL can be contacted at <tltuc_ferna@hotmail.com>.]

From Green Left Weekly, July 23, 2003.
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