Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the rights of workers to form and join unions of their choosing, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law prohibits dismissal or discrimination for union activity, and it allows for financial compensation in lieu of reinstatement. The law prohibits foreign migrant workers from participating in the leadership of trade unions, but does not restrict their membership. The law does not apply to workers in family-owned agricultural or industrial businesses used primarily for subsistence.
There are official registration procedures for trade unions and employer organizations. Workers employed by companies or institutions that provide “indispensable social needs” such as pharmacies, hospitals, or telecommunications firms are not barred from striking, but they are “obliged to ensure the provision of minimal services deemed indispensable” to satisfy public needs during a strike. The law allows the Council of Ministers to suspend a strike if it affects public order. The law prohibits employer lockouts.
The State Secretariat for Professional Education and Employment is charged with implementing the labor code and labor dispute settlement. The government lacked sufficient resources and skilled staff to enforce the right to freedom of association adequately. The trade union confederation registered 164 complaints of alleged violations of labor rights between January and July. Many disputes involved employees who alleged dismissal without cause or firing upon returning from sick or maternity leave. According to the trade union confederation, many workers were fired because of a lack of government contracts to the private sector during a protracted political impasse that left the country without a state budget from January to September.
Violations of the labor code are punishable by fines and other penalties, but they are not sufficient to deter violations. Alleged violations included failure to provide maternity benefits, nonpayment of wages, and unfair dismissal. The trade union confederation alleged that the State Secretariat for Professional Education and Employment’s mediation procedures favored the employer.
Workers’ organizations were generally independent and operated without interference from government or employers. Unions may draft their own constitutions and rules and elect their representatives. The majority of workers were employed in the informal sector, resulting in a large nonunionized work force. Attempts to organize workers were slow since workers generally lacked experience negotiating contracts and engaging in collective bargaining.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits child labor and specifically prohibits children younger than age 15 from working, except in “light work” and in vocational training programs for children between ages 13 and 15. The labor law specifically outlaws all of the worst forms of child labor and prohibits minors (persons younger than age 17) from all forms of hazardous work, a definition that leaves 17-year-olds vulnerable to child labor and exploitation. The government generally did not enforce child labor laws outside the capital. The labor code does not apply to family-owned businesses operated for subsistence, the sector in which most children worked. The government has not adopted a list of prohibited hazardous work.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity and Inclusion, the Secretariat of State for Professional Education and Employment, and the PNTL are responsible for enforcing child labor law. A lack of child labor professionals at the Secretariat of State for Professional Education and Employment hindered proper enforcement. The number of labor inspectors was inadequate to investigate child labor cases and enforce the law, particularly in rural areas where child labor in the agriculture sector is prevalent. Penalties for child labor and forced labor violations may include fines and imprisonment; however, they were insufficient to deter violations.
Child labor in the informal sector was a problem, particularly in agriculture, street vending, and domestic service. Children in rural areas continued to engage in dangerous agricultural activities, such as cultivating and processing coffee in family-run businesses, using dangerous machinery and tools, carrying heavy loads, and applying harmful pesticides. In rural areas, heavily indebted parents sometimes put their children to work as indentured servants to settle debts. If the child is a girl, the receiving family could also demand any bride price payment normally owed to the girl’s parents. Children were also employed in fishing, with some working long hours, performing physically demanding tasks, and facing dangerous conditions.
There were some reports of commercial sexual exploitation of children (also see Section 6, Children).
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in employment or occupation, although it does not specifically prohibit such discrimination based on sexual orientation. The code also mandates equal pay. The government did not effectively enforce the code’s provisions.
Employers may only require workers to undergo medical testing, including HIV testing, with the worker’s written consent. Work visa applications require medical clearance.
Discrimination against women reportedly was common throughout the government, but it sometimes went unaddressed. NGO workers noted this was largely due to lack of other employment opportunities and fear of retaliation among victims. Women also were disadvantaged in pursuing job opportunities due to cultural norms, stereotypes, and an overall lower level of qualifications or education. Some reported that pregnant women did not receive maternity leave and other protections guaranteed by the labor code.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The legally set minimum monthly wage was $115 (the U.S. dollar is the legal currency). The official national poverty level was $1.00 per day.
The labor code provides for a standard workweek of 44 hours. Overtime cannot exceed 16 hours per week, except in emergencies, which the labor code defined as “force majeure or where such work is indispensable in order to prevent or repair serious damages for the company or for its feasibility.” The law sets minimum standards for worker health and safety. The law provides explicitly for the right of pregnant women and new mothers to stop work that might harm their health without a cut in pay. It does not provide other workers the right to leave a hazardous workplace without threat of dismissal. The law requires equal treatment and remuneration for all workers, including legally employed foreign workers.
The State Secretariat for Professional Education and Employment acknowledged that it lacked inspectors and resources to enforce labor standards effectively. Nine months without an approved state budget also hindered the government’s ability to perform inspections, particularly outside Dili.
The law, including legislation pertaining to hazardous work, does not apply to the informal sector. According to data from the Ministry of Finance, the informal sector employed 72 percent of the workforce. Domestic workers, a large percentage of the working population, especially of working women, were inadequately protected and particularly vulnerable to exploitative working conditions, with many receiving less than minimum wage for long hours of work.
The labor code does not assign specific penalties or fines for violations of wage, hour, or occupational health and safety laws. Labor unions criticized inspectors for visiting worksites infrequently and for only discussing labor concerns with managers during inspections.
According to a local union, the government lacked the political will and institutional capacity to implement and enforce the labor code fully, and violations of minimum safety and health standards were common, particularly in the construction industry.