Interview: Trading Places
Safety: Snow Job
Politics: In the Vanguard
Unions: Gentle Giant Goes For Gold
Bad Boss: 'Porker' Chases Blue Ribbon
International: Cruising For A Bruising
History: Under the Influence
Economics: Working Capital
Review: Fahrenheit 9/11
Poetry: Bad Intelligence Rap
Satire: Osama Bin Manchu
The Locker Room
Tom Goes Asexual
Road Rage At Work
Democracy In Action
Lessons From East Timor
Late last month, I had the opportunity to travel with Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA to the poorest country in Asia, the fledgling nation of East Timor. Asia's poorest nation is also the world's newest nation, with East Timor being proclaimed an independent state in 2002.
Many trade union members and activists may know something of East Timor's notorious history. The country had, for about 450 years prior to 1975, been occupied as a colony of Portugal. The Portuguese originally came in search of sandalwood and spices, and stayed. They built the city of Dili, originally as a garrison town, in 1642.
The architectural evidence of Portuguese occupation is present everywhere. The local popularly-spoken language, Tetun, is an intoxicating mix of original native dialects and Portuguese. Stands of sandalwood that first brought the island's colonists still remain on the southern side of the island.
In 1975, East Timor was occupied by Indonesia, which claimed sovereignty over the former colonial province. This began the long struggle of the East Timorese people for independence against an often oppressive and brutal regime. The struggle gave rise to a number of popular resistance movements, like Fretilin and Falantil, that in the 1980s and 1990s enjoyed support by many Australian unions.
For many years, Australian Government policy recognized the occupation of East Timor by Indonesia, despite campaigning by many Australian unionists. This changed in the late 1990s, and among other things, led to a popular referendum on the question of self-determination late in 1999. The result of the referendum was in favour of independence, and this began a murderous rampage by Indonesian militia to threaten and intimidate the people.
The world responded to the situation with a UN mission, to protect the people from Indonesian militia. The UN mission in East Timor finally gave way to the establishment of a sovereign, democratic government in 2002.
The long involvement of the Australian union movement in building a just and democratic East Timor is continued today by many individual unions, and by Union Aid Abroad- APHEDA, the humanitarian aid agency of the ACTU. Last week, trade unionists from all over the country traveled to East Timor, to see the work APHEDA is doing there. I was lucky enough to be among them.
The first thing that hits you about the place as you make your way over its southern coast towards Dili, is the mountainous geography of the land. Sharp, green crags seem to rise up out of the ocean to great heights, and mist and cloud swirls around their peaks. From the air, it is very beautiful, but that beauty belies the difficulty of farming and agriculture in much of the country's rugged interior.
The arrival at Dili airport is spectacular. Dili is a city on a small coastal plain, hemmed in on all sides with mountains. My small aircraft appeared headed straight for one such mountain, before sharply turning, and coming in to land on a beachside airstrip.
The thing you first notice about East Timor is how little infrastructure there is. Passengers are met at a wire gate, their passports given the once-over, before being ushered into a demountable just off the tarmac, where a lone functionary stamps passports and issues a receipt for airport duty.
Once out of the airport, visitors emerge immediately into downtown Dili. Burnt out houses and other buildings line the dirt streets, complimented by makeshift humpies of corrigated iron. And everywhere, roaming freely, are animals. Chooks, goats and fat pigs seem to populate every corner, and race under cars at a moment's notice.
The backdrop to the city, of green hills towering seemingly from nowhere, stand as a beautiful contradiction to the obvious and confronting poverty of Dili.
The importance of the work of APHEDA, and the integrity of the organisation, is immediately apparent. The APHEDA office manager is Elizabeth, a Dili local, keen to welcome supporters, and with a network of local contacts on the ground.
The programme co-ordinator, until very recently, was Riyong, a woman passionate about development, fluent in Indonesian, and working hard to build the capacity and breadth of APHEDA's work in East Timor.
APHEDA's model for participation in development work in East Timor is unique. APHEDA works with project partners, often as a funder, to empower local groups and orgnaisations to gain valuable skills, and build their own capacity, size, and strength.
Working with local training organisations, such as KBH and the Labour Advocacy Institute for East Timor, APHEDA is involved in funding vocational training for blacksmiths and carpenters, providing skills and real income for young East Timorese. KBH also works with young people in schools, teaching performance skills to children, and the ability to communicate invaluable massages of the importance of education to the future of the fledgling country.
APHEDA works with women's groups such as GFFTL to promote literacy and textile skills, to improve the income and economy of local families. We were lucky enough to visit one such sewing workshop, where the women involved there spoke of how literacy and sewing had changed their lives, given them income, a skill base to support their families, and most importantly, a place to come belong, and take pride in the work they do.
APHEDA also works to build trade unionism in East Timor. The union movement is young, having grown out of the post-Indonesian era. Already, unions have a density of 40% of the small but growing East Timorese labour market, in the sectors of teaching, nursing, construction, transport, security, agriculture, and others. Already, work is well under way to build a public sector union, and an organiser has been employed for that purpose. It is a remarkable achievement.
The peak union council in East Timor, the Konfederasaun Sindikatu Timor Leste (KSTL) is run by two young and committed trade unionists, Zito and Rigo. Meeting these men, one cannot help but be moved by their passion and motivation, and humbled by their welcoming hospitality, vibrant personalities and sense of humour. APHEDA works to support the work of the KSTL in practical and more symbolic ways, and to link the growing East Timorese labour movement to unions and unionists in Australia. Civil trade unionism is invaluable to the growth of a modern democracy, and APHEDA's work with the KSTL is equally invaluable.
As well, study tour participants had the chance to meet with government ministers including the Minister for Labour and Solidarity, and the Vice-Minister for Health.
They outlined the challenges the government faces on health and employment, and the initiatives of the government to work towards a healthy population, and a growing, well-trained labour market. Both ministers outlined the determination of the government to build a people's economy, that provided real opportunities for the East Timorese, and not profiteering opportunities for external investors.
East Timor is a country and a people determined to move forward. Everywhere you travel, and everyone you meet, imparts a sense of progression, and a desire to improve the standards of living of the community.
Everyone is energised to build a just, prosperous modern democracy, out of the ashes of centuries of exploitation and colonisation. It is a hard task, but we can help. Seeing APHEDA's work on the ground proves its obvious worth and importance.
I encourage all trade union members and workers to join Union Aid Abroad APHEDA's Global Justice Program. Just $10 per month gives automatic membership to APHEDA, and creates the real opportunity to join other workers around the world in the struggle to build a better society for us all.
To find out more about APHEDA or to join call 1800 888 674 or visit: http://www.apheda.org.au
New members who join APHEDA or the Global Justice Program by December 1 will go into the draw to win a place on the 2005 Study Tour to East Timor. Existing members can get extra entries by signing up new donors/ members.
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