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  Issue No 49 Official Organ of LaborNet 07 April 2000  




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Rebuilding from the Rubble

Interview with Peter Lewis

Ramona Mitussis, APHEDA's co-ordinator in East Timor reports on how Australian workers are contributing to rebuilding a nation.


Ramona Mitussis

Can you first just paint a picture of what the situation on the ground is like?

I don't get a lot of time to get out of Dili but things are a bit grim here. There is a lot of violence around. We've got a East Timorese friend who is thinking of giving up his job with CIVPOL (the Police) because he just can't handle seeing the violence every day. There is a lot of aggression that's been built up and there are not effective ways to deal with it. There are no jobs. There's a lack of food. Basically, if you've got money you're OK but the vast majority of the population have no means of obtaining money. So, things are a bit grim.

The images we have here are of the scorched earth - basically no buildings left. Has that improved over the last few months?

Over the last four weeks I would say there are some signs of permanent reconstruction, but I don't believe there is a lot. Out in the districts they do have some shelter programmes but they are mainly non-permanent shelters that are being erected.

This month permanent reconstruction work has started but it has been slow and there are also problems. It has been said that the UN and some major aid organisations bought, for instance, corrugated iron from Indonesia that was 30 per cent cheaper than the Australian product, but the Australian product is guaranteed for 20 years. The Indonesian product only lasts about three to five years. So by the time the UN leaves it will all need replacing. So there's that kind of stuff that goes on as well, which makes you question just how good the reconstruction is.

So, who is actually running the show in terms of reconstruction?

The UN and its various bodies plus big aid organisations who are here specifically to help with reconstruction. Different aid organisations do different things, and there are a couple who do a lot of work in reconstruction. The procuring of goods and things like that as far as I can work out is to a degree controlled by the UN.

What specific work is APHEDA doing up there?

We are doing a number of things. The first and most important is we are trying to build a vocational training centre. We have secured the old Golkar - which is the old ruling party of Indonesia - we have secured that building. Unfortunately you don't get a lease in East Timor for longer than one year - for longer than 12 months, so we are very much stuck with less than favourable terms; everybody is stuck with the same terms. That means, we have got a very good chance of getting that lease renewed but we are going to have to put a lot of money in getting the building functional. It doesn't have a roof, etc. It's got asbestos. We are hoping to run a training programme to show how to remove asbestos in a safe way. There is a whole heap of issues that need to be thought through. It is going to require major fund raising, but I think that once it's up and running it will be a huge asset for the East Timorese people and something that APHEDA can leave. It's not for us to control. It's for us to set up and help fund and it can be there for 10 to 15 years or more.

We will hopefully be next door to the union centre. The union movement here is applying for a building right next door to Golkar. If they secure that there are a lot of resources that can be shared and the unions here are very interested in vocational training. We need to look at ways of structuring and delivering progams.

There's the union work that we have been doing as well. Training and other assistance. May Day preparations. Plus we've been working with some women's groups - a collective that's involved in textiles in the main - in the production of textiles, and the promotion of women's craft. They have got a building as well which will need some refurbishment. It has a roof but it's burnt out. It will need plumbing and electricity and some minor renovations on the inside. The roof is basically looks OK but that will have to be examined more closely.

We are doing a lot of work in the Education and Health areas. Helping with Heath and Education administration, supply of donated good, training, hopefully helping in the rebuilding of schools. The Education Unions and the ANF in Australia have done a tremendous amount of work in this area already. But it is only just beginning.

When you talk about the East Timorese union movement, what are you talking about?

It's difficult to describe. There is one organization called LAIFET which is a labour advocacy institute. It functions to assist workers - individual workers - when things go wrong, but also to help negotiate contracts for groups of workers. It also functions as a little bit of a resource centre but with very few resources at the moment. They work in conjunction with Emerging Workers' Groups and they have a heavy focus on organising workers so that workers are able to represent themselves. Now when you look at those workers' groups they are probably in about 30 workplaces, ranging from major aid organisations like CARE, UN bodies or bodies attached to the UN like the World Food Program. You've got the International Red Cross which runs the hospital plus you've got major businesses like Hotel Olympia, ports, airports, warehouses - those kinds of places are where they are organising. They are also looking to organise the self-employed and farmers as well. They are very much victims of the economic situation here..

Now, out of all of those groups there are probably three at the moment who are beginning to emerge as unions. Now I wouldn't say they were unions yet, but they are starting to take the form of a union. That would be the electrical workers, the port workers and the airport workers. They are probably the three main ones. There are some others that come and go. The teachers union for instance is starting to form but they don't have a strong organisational structure yet - they are working hard though and could be launched on May Day. They haven't done enough work on the ground organising teachers because it has been so difficult. The Health sector is very organised with representatives from each medical group such as doctors, nurses, dentists etc - and very politically aware! I hope they will march behind a banner on May Day. You have got some leaders who are very keen to set up structures and work towards a union, but they don't have the organising. Whereas other sectors have a good deal of work done in organising workers in a workplace but haven't worked towards developing union structures.

And is the relationship evolving in cooperation with the CNRT?

No, I would say it was totally separate. All the groups that I have talked to - the workers' groups and the Labour Advocacy Institute are fiercely independent of CNRT and also of any political party. Fiercely independent, and whilst they will talk to and inform and on occasion ask for some small assistance from CNRT, they basically operate very separately to it.

Do you see a prospect of a political labour movement evolving out of those unions?

What do you mean by political?

Like the Labor Party emerged from the Australian trade union movement ...

No. I think in the short to medium term that is highly unlikely. I think it will evolve as a union movement totally outside of the party political sphere. Now, in ten years time it may be a different story, but my prediction for a short to medium term would be - No, it will be totally separate and very much part of civil society. Some workers do want to set up a workers party - but not yet - and the relationship of such a party to the Union movement is something that will be debated!

Now, we have been hearing a lot of disquiet about the operation of some of the bigger aid agencies over in Timor. What's your perspective, having worked up there for some time now?

I think there are aid agencies and there are aid agencies. And a lot of decisions were made very quickly with the excuse that it was the emergency situation so I think workers were treated quite despicably. I think the pay was very low. I think the hours were very long. I don't think the food provisions; transportation provisions; etc. were anywhere near adequate.

There were some very good agencies though that did look after their workers and when things did go wrong would say, well, yes, we haven't done things the best, help us do things better. These were the discussions they would have with the workers.

But other aid organisations - I mean CARE for example. CARE Canada lead in East Timor but CARE Australia is about to take over the reins and they are still paying workers $Aust.4.00 for 10 hours work every day in warehouses and you can't make ends meet on that. I have heard that all they are feeding workers is rice. No protein, no vegetables, nothing just rice for the midday meal.

One of the major problems I think is that there just hasn't been a desire or an ability - and this isn't just from aid organisations but from the UN and private companies as well -- to have East Timorese actively participate in decision making processes. It's been very much decisions from abroad if you like. Decisions from the international community that have been imposed upon the East Timorese people. Now, you can forgive that in an emergency situation when you have got to get rice distributed, but six months down the track there is no excuse for it. There should be very large networks built up. There should be forums available for East Timorese people to debate and think about issues. There should be mechanisms whereby they can feed into the processes and actively participate - and that just hasn't happened.

So, from what you are saying it appears that a lot of the goodwill that may have been there six months ago when the aid agencies first came in is dissipating?

I wouldn't say goodwill had disappeared. The East Timorese are pretty cluey about the situation and they know what's right and what's wrong and they can see through a lot of what goes on. What is becoming very clear is that, despite the fact that they are surrounded by the international community, they feel more isolated and alienated than ever before. I think it's APHEDA's role and the union movement in Australia to try to create some really supportive and some really progressive links between the East Timorese people and other organisations because their experiences of organisations on the ground here aren't necessarily good and will never necessarily be good.

The focus of the immediate fund raising activity over in Australia will be a series of events to raise money for the radio station Voz Da Esperanca. Can you just let us know how important a radio station is in that broader picture of reconnecting the community?

Quite basically, if you can solve the communications problem in East Timor you can solve a good portion of the problems that East Timor faces. There is no effective communications system here, and we have got to think not just about radio but how people interact with the community radio station. It's all very well and good to be able to distribute information, but you also need to receive information.

The East Timorese feel as though they are in a total vacuum. They have no idea what goes on. The UN publications for instance are very generalised and don't debate issues and aren't open to having issues debated within them either. The media, especially Lov Da Esperanca has begun to create the forums whereby issues such as labour relations; such as media regulation; such as whatever, can be talked about and discussed and despite their origins - and this is important because they were originally called Radio Falintil - quite recently for instance they had Joao Carrascalao, a senior figure in the CNRT, who is also from UDT, from an organization and a side of the political spectrum that hasn't necessarily always supported independence - but they had an hour long interview with him because they feel that everybody's opinion is important and needs to be heard and needs to be debated. They also had an hour interview with Raghwan from the workers' Bureau of the ILO! So creating that kind of forum with a means of communication that can go to a huge range of people, and promotes debate and civil society - I think that is imperative and that we have to support it.

And Australians are also being asked to donate CDs for the radio stations. Is there any music on the ground at the moment, and if so, what is the sound of Dili?

The music ranges - the East Timorese basically love music - so you are looking at Reggae which is very popular; house music - we have very little house music at the moment, but they are pretty keen on that. East Timorese traditional songs; modern East Timorese songs; Indonesian songs - they have a lot of good contacts with Indonesian groups and are very supportive of many of the Indonesian groups who of course also have quite progressive politics. So it's a broad range of music, but they basically listen to anything including classical.


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*   Issue 49 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Rebuilding from the Rubble
Ramona Mitussis, APHEDA's co-ordinator in East Timor reports on how Australian workers are contributing to rebuilding a nation.
*  East Timor: UN Poseurs Delay Reconstruction
Returning to the Dili compound where he spent five days under siege, HT Lee finds an aid bureacracy out of control.
*  Unions: The Last Bank in Minto
"It's a busy branch", Carol Davison insists, watching the crowd gather around the Commonwealth Bank branch at Minto Mall. By the time you read this, the branch will be another empty shopfront, stripped of its fittings, with junk mail starting to accumulate under the front door.
*  International: Workers of the World Unite
ILO Director-General Juan Somavia's keynote address to the ICFTU Congress in Durban, South Africa this week.
*  Olympics: Strange Tenants
Rentwatchers lifts the lid on the legacy the 2000 Games will leave on Sydney's tenants.
*  Politics: The Loneliness Crisis
Lindsay Tanner looks at the politics of the soul that form the backdrop of many of our social ills.
*  History: Songs of Solidarity
Visiting US labour acadmeic John Lund has found a new way to digest history - he commits workers' struggles to song.
*  Satire: Seven Launches 'Popstars' Spin-off
On the heels of Popstars comes a new show taking five minor celebrities and turning them into normal people
*  Review: Keating's Engagement
Whether it's analysis or self-justification, Paul Keating's new book is an engaging read.

»  Free East Timor? For the Workers, It's Just Cheap
»  Maria Wins Historic Email Test Case
»  More Hot Air: Cyclone Telstra Hits Townsville
»  Cleaners Walk: We Are Humans, Not Robots!
»  Reith's Day in the Dock Draws Near
»  Olympics Tickets: One Size Doesn't Fit All
»  Back Door Sell-Off of Nursing Home Beds
»  Entitlement Changes Fail to Protect Workers
»  Shaw Sets Safety Guidelines
»  Water Workers Ready to Walk
»  Honour for Jack Mundy
»  Lindsay Tanner Chat Session
»  Radio Free East Timor Fundraiser Thursday
»  Workers Online Turns 50 Next Week!

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  Public Meeting: Globalised Capital and International Labour.

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