Monday, March 17, 2008

Just what Timor needs

One thing I find really puzzling about Timor is the amount of foreign labour around. I'm not talking about NGO workers, UN types and whatnot, I'm talking about semi- and un-skilled labour.

The HUGE new foreign ministry building is not only being funded and designed by the Government of the People's Republic of China, it's being built by imported Chinese labourers as well. I don't know where they work, but there are a bunch of Filipino labourers around as well that sometimes turn up to basketball. Even stranger, there seems to be a huge Thai population here as well with lots of Thai restaurants and massage salons all populated by Thai waitresses, masseuses and even cleaners...

Most estimates of Timor's unemployment rate come in around the 50% mark (and most of them add the disclaimer that that doesn't include the under-employed) with around 100,000 high school graduates entering the workforce every year. The only way I figured it would be possible that importing foreign labour is cheaper than training up locals, would be if they get their value-added through an increased ability to control their employees. i.e. bonded servitude type-of-thing.

I did something to my hip running on the treadmill the other day (stupid poorly engineered tall-person skeleton/musculature) so I decided to go and get a massage. I had a recommendation on a place called Dili Club House Resort from a friend so I thought I'd check it out. At US$17 an hour it's relatively cheap by Dili standards (i.e. only a bit over 5 times what I pay for a massage at my regular place in Jakarta), but it's genuine Thai massage provided by genuine Thai ladies. I speak a little Thai from a trip there a few years ago so I tried to get them to explain the intricacies of this puzzling pocket of increased developing country cross-border labour market mobility.

Now, I should preface this by a disclaimer that I once had a discussion in Thai about what I thought was a bombing in Colombia that turned out to be about the crash of the space shuttle Columbia, but I'll share my understanding of our conversation...

It turns out that my theory on bonded servitude was pretty close to the mark. I was stuck for a word and, considering she'd been in Timor for 5 months, I figured she must have picked up a word or two of either Tetum or Indonesian to get around so I asked her if she spoke either of those, but she couldn't speak a word. I asked her how she got around, going to the market and whatnot and she said, and I quote, "mai dai bai". Literally, as far as I understand that means "can not go". I may be misunderstanding some intricacies of the usage of "can not" in Thai, perhaps it's used in a different way to the way we use it and she meant she just doesn't go, but I'm pretty sure she means she's not allowed to go.

I was gob-smacked. Here I was supporting the international slave-trade were women are forced into servitude in strange countries and not allowed to leave the premises. I wasn't really sure how to continue so I asked the only question that I could muster given my linguistic limitations:
"So, uh, do you like it here?"
And the response came:
"Yeah, I like it. The money is much better here than in Thailand."

"You don't want to go to the market or the beach"



"Can not"

There it goes again... The ambiguous "can not" that I don't understand the potential intricacies of. Now the question comes: what do I do?

From a macro perspective, I can't understand why the Timorese government is issuing so many working visas for this sort of semi-skilled and unskilled work (assuming these businesses are above board, which is far from a safe assumption). In Indonesia a foreigner can't get a work visa unless he can prove that the job couldn't be done by an Indonesian and that over the period of his contract he will train an Indonesian to replace him. Of course, in most cases that doesn't happen, but the sentiment is admirable.

From a personal perspective, as much as I like Thailand and want their economy to be doing well, Timor's is in a little more trouble and it certainly doesn't need to be importing labour. I'd much rather support a local business, or at least one that employs local people and improves their capacity to work (even if it is just massaging rich foreigners, it's better than nothing), but, as far as I can tell, massage just isn't a part of Timorese culture. I've never seen a panti pijat targeted at locals so the only place to get a massage is at the fancy foreign owned places targeted at foreigners. And I like massages!

Also, as far as massage places go this one seems relatively above board. The three women I talked to seemed to genuinely like it there (despite my suspicions of bonded servitude), the set up is such that it looks unlikely that it gets transformed into a brothel as the need arises (certainly not something I want to be supporting), the massage was good, and I get to practice my Thai. So, I suppose I'll keep going there for a while, until I hear about a local place, or at least a place that employs local people.

I think I know some people who work for the International Labor Organization here, I'll have to ask them what they think about the situation. It's certainly very strange, but with such a bizarre melting pot of people and so many economies running in parallel it's really par for the course in Dili.