By Jon Land
DILI — East Timorese workers at the floating Hotel Olympia and Amos W. complex have won better wages and conditions following a 24-hour sit-in strike. The action, which began on February 10, involved 40 hospitality and housekeeping workers. The dispute reflects increasing discontent within East Timorese society at low wages and high prices for basic commodities.
The workers demanded that their wages increase from $5 a day to $25, a reduction in their 72-hour work week and better treatment from management. Many workers were angry with the lack of consultation by hotel management and practices such as the searching of workers' bags after their shift. The searches take place at the entrance to the hotel, in front of passers-by. The workers consider this highly demeaning.
The response of the two managers responsible for supervising the workers was to ignore the their demands and threaten them with dismissal if they did not return to work. When the workers refused to go back to work, or leave the Olympia, United Nations Civilian Police were called. A tense situation developed and the area was cordoned off by the police.
The workers contacted the National Council for Timorese Resistance for assistance. When Avelino da Silva, a member of the National Consultative Council and general-secretary of the Socialist Party of Timor arrived on the afternoon of February 11, the UN police were attempting to remove the workers. Da Silva warned the police not to act in a "colonialist way" and to allow the workers to stay so that negotiations could take place.
The workers met with da Silva and modified their demands. The managers remained reluctant to listen to the workers grievances. After several hours of discussion, an agreement was eventually reached on improving wages and conditions.
Olympia management agreed to increase wages to $9 dollars a day and a reduction in the hours worked each day from 12 hours to eight. The two managers have been removed from their positions. A staff liaison committee established to meet with management on a regular basis.
The wage increase and improvements in conditions are incorporated in a contract drafted by the Maubere Institute for Cooperation and Equity (MICE), a legal aid and advocacy organisation recently established by da Silva with the assistance of Australian lawyer Martin Hardy. The contract is the first during the transition period. Negotiations are continuing for it to include sick leave, holiday and compassionate leave, and redundancy payments.
MICE is calling for the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) to conduct a detailed survey on the cost of living in East Timor, which could be used as the basis for setting a minimum wage for workers in both the public and private sector. While some regulations exist for UNTAET workers, there are no formal laws or conditions established for workers in the private sector.
"Other protest actions by workers will occur if their wages remain low and the price of food and transport stays high", da Silva told Green Left Weekly. "Others will follow the example of the Olympia workers. They will realise they have the right to better wages and conditions than those they receive at present."