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The legislation of East Timor recognises trade union rights; however, several laws restrict the right to strike. Employers who violate workers' fundamental rights are barely punished, largely owing to the biased approach of the labour inspectorate. Some trade unionists were arrested or dismissed in 2008.
Trade union rights in law
Legislation guarantees freedom of association and the right to strike: The right to form unions is guaranteed explicitly by the Constitution. The Labour Code also guarantees the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Only police and army officials are denied the right to form and join unions. Between five and ten workers are required to form a union.
Where an employer fails to recognise the union, either party may apply for the assistance of the government's Conciliation and Mediation Service. If the dispute remains unresolved, either party may file an application to the labour relations board/arbitration, but any party can appeal to a civil court and the high court.
The law explicitly outlaws termination of employment in retaliation for union activity, although this protection is partly undermined by another provision which explicitly accepts the principle of allowing for financial compensation in lieu of reinstatement when "the employer refuses to reinstate the worker."
Labour Code guarantees right to collectively bargain: The law provides for collective bargaining. However, in cases where an agreement cannot be reached after bilateral negotiations, and after involvement and failure of the government's Mediation and Conciliation Service to resolve the dispute, either party can apply to the Labour Relations Board.
Restrictions on the right to strike: Before going on strike, a union must provide prior written notice to the employer and to the government's Conciliation and Mediation Service at least ten days before taking such action. The Minister is given an absolute right to prohibit or restrict a strike if it involves an industry or sector classified as "essential services."
New law places restrictions on freedom to publicly assemble or strike: The Freedom, Assembly, and Demonstration Act, promulgated in January 2006, places a number of significant restrictions on the right to publicly assemble and demonstrate. Among the provisions are requirements that the police must be informed at least four days in advance of any strike or demonstration.
Protests are not allowed within 100 metres of government offices, official residences of government officials, diplomatic missions, offices of political parties, prisons, and military installations. The same distance rule for strikes or demonstrations applies to key parts of commercial and transportation infrastructure, including ports, airports, telecommunication facilities, power plants, water depots, and fuel depots.
Restrictions on freedom of association for foreigners: The Immigration and Asylum Act states that foreigners are forbidden from participating in the "administrative or social organs of a union ... ".
Trade union rights in practice and violations in 2008
Background: Having been independent since 2002, East Timor is one of the poorest countries in the world, despite its energy resources. Divisions and allegations of discrimination within the armed forces sparked off a civil war in Dili in April and May 2006. A UN mission was set up to ensure stability and promote democratic governance. The Nobel Peace Prize winner José Ramos-Horta, elected President in 2007, was seriously injured in an assassination attempt on 11 February 2008. A state of emergency was decreed until the end of April, accompanied by suspension of freedom of assembly and reported abuses by the security forces when searching for the rebels. Relative calm was restored in the latter months of 2008.
High unemployment, limited formal sector serve as barriers: The government's 2004 census found that 88 per cent of East Timor's working population are either in "self-employment or subsistence farming." Clearly, given the difficulties workers face in finding a job in the formal economy, few want to risk returning to poverty by challenging an employer's prerogatives on trade union rights, or wages and conditions of work.
The Timor Leste Trade Union Confederation (TLTUC/KSTL) stresses that a "lack of understanding from the East Timor workers about unions is one of the major problems that unions are facing."
Limited enforcement of legislation: Despite legislation guaranteeing workers' right to form and join trade unions and to go on strike, in practice many employers do everything they can to prevent the right being exercised, for example, through dismissals.
In practice, enforcement of the Labour Code, especially outside the capital city of Dili, has been limited. Reports from trade unionists in the country indicated that inspectors from the Ministry for Labour were not always strictly neutral in their implementation of the law, and tended to favour employers. According to the TLTUC/KSTL, the labour inspectors simply talk to the employers and do not check what they say with the workers.
Arrest and dismissal of trade unionists: On 18 November, Mr Jose Zito da Costa, President of the KSTL (Timor-Leste Trade Union Confederation), and Mr Almerio Vila Nova, General Secretary of the GWU (General Workers' Union), were arrested by police while taking part in a peaceful protest, and then released several hours later. Their protest was in support of workers involved in a legal strike to protest against the dismissal of three fellow workers sacked from the Kmanek supermarket (formerly Dili Cold Store). The sacked workers are all members of the GWU, which had been attempting to negotiate a collective agreement in the supermarket. The unions tried to contest this dismissal, but the management refused to reinstate the workers, so the dispute was referred to the Department of Labour. The Department of Labour concluded that the employer should reinstate the three workers, but when the company refused to do so, the unions used the procedure for declaring a legal strike.
Destruction of a union's office: The office of the East Timor Teachers' Union (ETTU, an affiliate of EI) was destroyed in the violence that shook Dili in February and March 2007, and equipment was stolen, as in May 2006. The teachers' union has not been able to operate normally since then.
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