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    Jobs for East Timor
    Dave Owens reports from Dili

    from The Jobs Letter No.141 / 12, March 2001

    timordaveplane.jpg - 14404 Bytes The Jobs Letter writer and Jobs Research Trust trustee DAVE OWENS went to East Timor not just with a sense that he could be useful, but with also a sense of personal obligation. Watching the capital Dili burn on his television screen in September 1999, Owens says he “...knew in my heart that the 25-year tragedy of East Timor would never have happened if our governments had not silently condoned it.”

    Owens has been in East Timor for the last four months, working with the locally-run community organisation FUTO. He has been volunteering both his carpentry skills and his background in running community-level organisations, and enterprise projects. He has also been writing a fortnightly series of Letters for the Taranaki newspaper The Daily News, detailing his impressions of the challenges facing the newly independent East Timorese, and what we can do to help.

    While New Zealand’s contribution in terms of our military presence in East Timor is well known and valued, Owens believes it will take much more than the Army to rebuild the fabric of a civil society in this war-ravaged nation. Much of the present livelihood in Timor is at a subsistence level of farming and fishing ... yet creating pathways for training and higher education, and developing self employment and small business opportunities, will be an important part of rebuilding the Timorese economy. And they’ll need help.

    Owens advocates that individuals and community groups throughout New Zealand can play an important role in sharing resources, skills and expertise. As he points out in his Letters , community-based support by Australians and New Zealanders is the only help many Timorese organisations get. In the light of an estimated 80% local unemployment, he says the need for support is as vital now as it was a year ago.

    In this special feature, Owens sketches the view from Dili on the state of the employment and job creation challenges facing East Timor today.

    DILI 8 March 2001.

    EMPLOYMENT IS A CRITICAL issue in East Timor. Looking around Dili and the districts, it's obvious there aren't many people with waged jobs. Most jobs for the East Timorese are primarily in the government or government supported services like the hospitals.

    A recruitment officer, responsible for filling Timorese job vacancies in the government, UNTAET, told me that just about all the qualified Timorese now have jobs. Most of those who are left are under skilled. She says she has people with four years of primary school education insisting on applying for jobs that require university degrees. It shows how desparate people are for work, and how little opportunity they have to skill themselves for it.

    timormarket.jpg - 19059 Bytes So if people don't have jobs, how do they make their living in a place where there is no social welfare system? Many families have staked-out a small square of land and set up a stall to sell things from. There are thousands of these self-employed families in Dili. Other people don't even bother with the shop and just walk around carrying their speciality, like avocados or strips of meat or cigarettes or water or mothballs (truly). I guess you'd call it subsistence retailing. It seems to be working for some, or at least plenty are doing it.

    There are two other common forms of self-employment or contracting. One is the entry level job that is popular with new urban arrivals all around the world: taxi driving. And the other is money changing. Black market money changing is an all hours service provided very honestly by hundreds of Timorese young men around Dili. With Indonesian rupiah, Australian dollars and US dollars all circulating here, people often need to change money. These black market people provide an essential service and and convenient service and at the same time gives you about 1% better rate than the bank.

    What private sector paid jobs there are, are mostly in service. They could be summed up as security, retail and hotel & restaurant staff. There is also a construction industry that is pretty much run by malaes (foreigners) but staffed by Timorese.

    Those business people who publicly look for workers are invariably inundated with applicants. The Employment Services here says that sometimes a thousand people apply for the same job. Do you get the sense of the desparateness they have?

    timorhammock.jpg - 18603 Bytes
    The market is both livelihood and home for some

    In this rather uncertain time in East Timor, when many businesses are just finding their feet, there are also increasing numbers of labour relations disputes. If businesses can't or don't honour their employees' contracts, workers are aware of their rights and willing to take their boss to arbitration.

    Currently, these cases are being resolved with the help of Jim Robertson, a Scotsman contracted to the UN. Robertson's actual job is Vocational Training and Education Advisor. He says he is doing labour conciliation because no one else is doing it. I suspect, that he and his colleagues know that if no one was providing a place for arbitration on labour issues, people would take matters into their own hands. If that sounds threatening, it is.

    Robertson says there are a couple of problems with this arrangement. One is that, while most case are resolved, a few have not reached agreement and, at this point and in the foreseeable future, there is no "higher authority" to take the disputes to. Nobody knows what to do next. The other problem is that he is being distracted from the job he was hired to do which is to develop vocational training and education policy and strategies. So at the moment, there are none.

    Statistics on employment have only just begun to be recorded. They won't even know how many people there are in East Timor until the elections late this year. So as you might expect, there is no reasonable way to estimate the unemployment rate is. But government briefing papers refer to it as "high".

    The nation's first, and as I write this, only Employment Services office was opened in August, 2000, in Dili. It has a Timorese manager and six staff. Their brief is to register job seekers and job vacancies.

    During their first month, September, last year, they registered about 1,000 job seekers and placed about 100. In January this year they registered 870 job seekers and placed three. In the first ten days of February, they registered 1,254 job seekers but there were no placement figures in the document I saw. I'd say, realistically what they are doing now is registering job seekers but not sourcing jobs.

    Staff describe mornings at the office as chaotic and I got the impression it can get frightening. More and more people are coming to the Employment Services in desparate need of a job.

    Jim Robertson was one of three international UN staff I spoke to at the Division of Labour and Social Services. Another was Japanese national Kay Abe-Nagata who had been in East Timor two weeks. Her brief is the politically expedient development of employment strategies for the war disabled. Abe-Nagata said she spent most of her first two weeks getting a grip on the convoluted government structure. I don't blame her. I wonder if anyone understands it.

    Femi Aguda, a Nigerian who is a UN Volunteer, specialises in small and medium sized business skills training. He has organised two "training of trainers" courses since he arrived in August, 2000 by bringing in a consultant from Sydney in as the trainer. The course they use was developed by the ILO and is two weeks long, with a week break in the middle. His programme is directed towards NGOs but he says that very few NGOs are focused on enterprise and I get the impression he has not found who would benefit from this type of training.

    I since met a Timorese man who took the ILO course and he said that except for the bookkeeping part, he didn't find the course much use. He said there was no attempt to make it relevent to Timorese people and that it was based on American and British examples. The fact that the course was developed for developing countries and has been used elsewhere, does not necessarily mean it is effective. All that means is that some consultant fulfilled an contract by writing and now it is being used around the world as training for enterprise skills, fulfilling bureaucrats' responsibilities to offer enterprise skills training.

    Aguda and Robertson both told me, with exasperation, that there is no employment policy. They say they are operating in a vacuum. In fact they are operating out of a large portacom along with most of the rest of the Department of Social Affairs.

    While my experience is in the urban setting of Dili where unemployment, and youth unemployment is particularly apparent, East Timor is traditionally an agricultural economy. And, while many people want real opportunities and 'modern' futures for themselves and their children, you can't discount subsistence fishing and farming as important means of livelihood. There is no doubt that throwing a net over the reef from a dugout outrigger canoe just 80 meters from shore is important work. Just as tilling a plot of corn, cucumbers, beans and tomatoes and tending a coconut palm, a banana tree, a few papayas, are significant and respectable elements in the matrix of work in East Timor.

    However, people want to regain the standard of living they had while the Indonesians were here. In the towns, they are only going to get this when they get decent paying jobs.

    01burn.jpg - 14912 Bytes
    Burnt out building in Dili

    Dave Owens
    Letters from Timor on the Web
    The Jobs Research Trust has established a website to support Dave Owen’s volunteer initiatives in East Timor. Here you can read Dave’s letters from the past four months, and view photos of people and projects he has been working with. The website can be found at

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