Schools

Your say: From little things, a union will grow

May 16, 2018

This year I made the move to Timor-Leste to work in one of the several remote districts. My school has about 600 students from kindergarten to year 12 and I teach the national English curriculum. English, along with Tetun, Portuguese, and Bahasa Indonesian are mandatory subjects in high school. Portuguese and Tetun are taught from primary school.

It was only a matter of time before I asked the question, “Is there a teachers’ union here?” and began researching who I needed to contact. After a few months of digging, including seeking advice from Henry Rajendra back in Federation House, I recently met with the President of the Sindikato dos Professores Timor-Leste (SPTL) or East Timor Teachers Union in English.

Tucked away in the backstreets of Dili is a small blue house that you’d think was just a family home. It is however, the office to the various trade unions of Timor-Leste. My Timorese friend, a former worker for the Maritime Union was wearing a CFMEU shirt with the words of Vincent Lingiari printed across the back and the Aboriginal flag on the sleeve.

In the hustle and bustle of Dili, here I am meeting a unionist friend wearing my flag and equally inspired by the late Lingiari’s movement and words. Suddenly, the idea we all know — “from little things big things grow” — couldn’t seem more appropriate for the union movement in Timor-Leste, which is truly still a “little thing”. Yet Timor-Leste is a nation well positioned to develop a strong trade union movement as all political parties, in theory at least, sit to the centre and left on the political spectrum.

When Timor-Leste emerged as the world's newest nation in 2002, the majority of its infrastructure had been destroyed under the 25-year Indonesian occupation. The previous Indonesian education system was dismantled and a vacuum for education emerged and needed to be filled quickly.

This task was undertaken by the United Nations with masses of financial and technical support from Portugal and Australia (both keen to influence education for strategic reasons). Currently, 60 per cent of the tiny country’s population is under the age of 25. From 2002 until last year, the different political parties engaged in “power sharing” rather than a political system of government and opposition.

In a sense, this was to build confidence in the newly founded government and its various systems, including the Ministry of Education. Yet the election coming in May (the second within 12 months after a minority government failed to establish a coalition and vote supply) signifies a shift from this, towards clear divisions between parties who will act in opposition to one another.

The period of unity has meant nationalism has grown behind political parties and faith has been placed in government agencies, making activating membership within a union movement difficult. The president of the teachers union Francisco Fernandes said: “People are proud to be members of political parties and see it as the means to affecting change and development in Timor-Leste. There has not yet been the emergence of solidarity as professionals [in this example, teachers], to fight for change and development.” As around 75 per cent of teachers in local schools don’t have qualifications in education, building solidarity and pride in the profession is just one of many challenges facing education development in Timor-Leste.

Political fragility and the crisis of 2006 has made it difficult for foreign assistance through Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and Education International to fully take effect. Unity between the different unions has become a problem as five unions have affiliated under umbrella organisation KSTL; with SPTL and the Public Services Union separate.

The teachers union has an established executive of seven people, all of whom are still teaching in schools, and has been operating in one form or another since independence. Mr Fernandes said they had registered about 7000 members (out of 50,000 teachers) across Timor in both the public and catholic schools.

Most of these members have paid an initial joining fee, however, systems are not yet in place to collect membership fees. Mr Fernandes said the importance of the union and strengthening its role needed to be built first, before asking teachers to pay membership. Membership for most of the unions is around $1 a month or 1 per cent of income.

The role of the union in a post-conflict developing society is yet to be fully established. The major political parties all sit along the centre to centre-left of the political spectrum, in discourse at least. The force of neoliberal development, however, dominates conversation and political discourse.

Jose Ramos Horta recently said in The Washington Post: “The study by the UN on our social economic indicators, particularly on malnutrition and children’s growth are extremely negative, I’d say a total failure over the last 10 years.”

He also commented on the lack of focus on vocational training as a huge failure of the existing education system, entirely based on the Portuguese structure. Balancing a speedy provision of education with quality, will always be a challenge for emerging nations and Timor-Leste has been no exception.

I discovered recently that the outgoing education minister is a professor in accounting and finance. As you can imagine, and situated within the World Bank's definition of Education Development, the focus is on “value for money” rather than quality of the education provided.

A lot of people and academics suggest Timor-Leste hasn’t properly had the debate, “What is education for?” Remnants of the colonial systems persist and how education is managed is extremely dependent on the whim of different ministers and their advisers, usually international actors, rather than through robust community debate and consultation.

Currently, Timor-Leste has an extremely Western system of education, with a year 10-12 curriculum written by Portuguese universities. Students in senior high school learn 13 subjects including civic education, sociology, Portuguese arts and literature, mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and the aforementioned languages. The two national exams in year 9 and year 12 are multiple choice questions only, testing retention of content rather than skills.

As Federation celebrates 100 years of teacher unity, I can’t help but wonder at our story when Federation was just 16 years old, and indeed a federated Australia was still in its infancy. The challenge ahead for education and the union movement are enormous, as is the entire task of nation building. One thing is clear, international players need to be listening and entering Timor-Leste in solidarity, rather than on notions of “helping” and dictating policy.

Mr Fernandes said the vision of SPTL is to be a union run by teachers for teachers, an idea we at Federation cherish and are very proud of. Providing a platform for local teachers to help control the future of education in Timor-Leste is their vision for the future role of SPTL. So far, the relationship between union and government has not been productive, particularly within education. The union executive have invited me to take part in a meeting later this year to discuss the future building of the union and options for increasing membership and opening a dialogue with a newly elected government.

Despite the continued challenges, Timor-Leste has made strides in development and continues to make progress in various areas. Just last year, the President of the wholly catholic country spoke out against violence towards LGBTI people and requested acceptance for the community. Organisations continue to work with communities on the problem of domestic violence, mental health, and nutrition – all areas that even still plague various Australian communities.

It is an exciting time for Timor-Leste, a nation and people who have emerged from horrendous bloodshed ready to fight for a free and just future.

Tim Blackman is a former Federation Councillor and Project Officer. He is currently on leave without pay from Australia, working in a remote school in Timor-Leste