Brexit and Timorese workers in the UK

Published on 5 August 2016

Many people in Britain have never heard of the south-east Asian country of Timor-Leste, but few Timorese have not heard of UK, or more specifically of Northern Ireland and the small town of Dungannon, which has become an important source of income for many families in Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste is said to be the poorest country in Asia, and like Northern Ireland has a long history of conflict. It became an independent nation recognised by the UN on 20 May 2002. It also has one of the youngest populations in the world with 62.5% of the population under the age of 25 years. While the official unemployment rate is claimed to be 11%, up to 70% of the population are subsistence farmers. Except for the youth, that is. It is common for families that have sent their children to school (often the first generation to have this opportunity) to believe that these youth should get a job rather than work in the family farm. However the statistics are against them. Reports of youth unemployment vary, but a figure of 40% is sometimes mentioned, which is probably optimistic. Thousands of school leavers head to the bright lights of the capital Dili in the hope of finding work, but it is estimated that only 400 new private sector jobs are created a year. Even university graduates are found in large numbers looking for work, as I found last year when recruiting 80 enumerators for a local research project. We received 360 applications in just four days, with all but a handful being unemployed university graduates.

Dungannon is the location of a meat factory which sought migrant labour from Portugal in 1999-2000. There a Timorese took up the offer of work and went to Northern Ireland. He told his friends and they told theirs. Since then, there has been a steady stream of Timorese workers arrive in UK. It is estimated that 16,000 Timorese are resident in the UK, 3,000 of them in Dungannon. It is a result of a unique situation by which Timorese born before May 2002 were given the right to a Portuguese passport allowing them to live and work in UK as Portuguese citizens, a situation that could change dramatically after Brexit.

Timorese migrate for work because there are not opportunities at home. I recently interviewed a small number of returned workers in Dili. Although I knew that many Timorese were working in UK, I found that for many Timorese families work in UK is one of the major sources of income. In typical Timorese style, a worker will support not only the livelihood of his direct family, but the education of brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces and cousins, and the establishment of businesses, typically a small community shop, that will provide income and employment to the extended family.

Migration overseas for work has become an important source of income for many countries. Timor-Leste has two official programs to facilitate overseas work for Timorese. The first, the South Korea temporary workers program is a government to government program with Timor-Leste becoming the fifteenth Asian country to join the Korean Employment Permit System (EPS). This program has enabled two thousand Timorese to work in Korea over six years and send home a considerable amount of money. Another more recent program is the Australian Seasonal Workers Program which started in 2012 to fill low-skill seasonal vacancies and has to date enabled a few hundred Timorese to work in seasonal activities for a few months a year.

Unlike these programs, finding work in the UK is an individual enterprise with no official backing.  However its importance to the Timorese economy is indicated by the fact that the Prime Minister personally visited Northern Ireland Timorese workers and made official communication on the issue with the British and Portuguese governments the week following the Brexit vote.

I will be undertaking research with the Timorese in Northern Ireland, to learn more about their experiences and the significance this work has for their families. This is work in meat factories that most British would be unwilling to do, but more needs to be understood about the importance of it to the livelihoods of families across Timor-Leste.

Dr Ann Wigglesworth is the author of ‘Activism and Aid: Young citizens’ experiences of development and democracy in Timor-Leste’ (Monash University Publishing, 2016).




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