06 June 2009

Believe it or not! East Timor's Public Servants Sweep Streets of Dili

24 May 2009 Timor Times - Timor's Council of Ministers passed a new regulation last week that affects my work – in fact, the work of every single person in the public service - but is not about gender. Or law. Or policy. Or programs. Or anything that most government offices would do, in my experience.

Every Friday for the next three months is now Cleaning Day. Public servants don't go to work in the morning. Instead, they put on their old clothes, they go out in the streets, and they sweep, hoe and pick up rubbish. It's like Clean Up Australia Day, except it’s Clean Up Dili Day and it happens every Friday.

Can I emphasize something? These are public servants. These are people who already had jobs to go to on a Friday morning.

It's not like we don't have sanitation workers. The Saneamento guys are out every weekday in different parts of Dili, with their trucks, sweeping and picking up rubbish. It's not like we don’t have a sky-high unemployment rate. It's not like we don’t have funds to pay extra people to do this. Donors practically fling themselves at the feet of this government, every single day.

So. Instead of using a tiny amount of donor funds to pay some 'unemployed' people to clean, on Fridays, now, all public servants 'clean' from 7am, 'do sports’ from 10am, go home for lunch and then 'go back to work in the afternoon'. I am using quote marks because during 'cleaning' and 'sports' time, there is an awful lot of standing about chatting. Dili is still covered in exactly the same amount of crap and rubbish that it has been since I got here, so I feel this also bears my observation out.

As for 'go back to work in the afternoon'... Are you kidding me? I can tell you now, the majority of people aren't coming back to work in the afternoon. It's Friday. They’ve been leaning on their brooms all morning. They’re tired. They're not coming back to work to hammer out that policy draft, or the agenda for Monday morning's senior staff meeting.

So now, a public service that already had difficulty getting through the amount of work it has to do in 5 days – which is not really 5 whole days, because people are always going to language lessons (Portuguese and English) and spending their time attending endless meetings – now has 4 days. I am seeing a bit of a trend already towards meetings on Saturdays instead (although this could just be a recent thing with my workplace, and not related to the cleaning).

If Dili is so concerned about the state of its streets – here's an idea – employ some extra damn sanitation workers. Don't use people who are already employed, who are meant to be learning how to run the freaking country!



Return to Rai Ketak - May 18, 2009

Police pull over taxis and force the occupants and driver out at gunpoint. Public transport is forbidden from operating, and as a result school children cannot get to school in time to attend their final day of national exams. It is eerily silent in the main commercial district of town as businesses and banks are not allowed to open. Parts of the city are blocked by the Prime Minister’s 10 car convoy, shadowing him as he walks slowly down the street in his blue nylon tracksuit.

Welcome to Friday morning in Dili, Timor-Leste, where the President has declared every Friday morning is “limpeza geral” (general cleaning), a day when civil servants are forced to sweep dirt and cut branches off trees. Very little rubbish seems to be collected during the cleaning. The litter which is accidentally swept up along with the dirt is left in piles by the side of the street, to blow away into the already clogged drains. Nobody has bothered to organise any rubbish trucks to come and pick it up. And everyone continues to throw their trash on the street as soon as the cleaning is over.

Most civil servants treat Friday “limpeza” as a day off. Those who do turn up for the cleaning are generally seen sitting around by the side of the road, chasing each other around with their brooms. Then, because they are wearing casual clothes and have become sweaty and dirty with sweeping, they have to go home and change, and have a nap, by which time it is too late to come back to work. Friday afternoon in the government offices is almost as deserted as Friday morning. This in a country where 50% of the population is living in absolute poverty, and in urgent need of the services the government is supposed to be providing – infrastructure, education, healthcare and security.

With the forced closures of banks and businesses, Friday “limpeza” also creates havoc for Timor-Leste’s struggling commercial sector. In a country where people are fond of resting, many Timorese stores have very limited opening hours – Monday to Friday from 9am to 12pm and 3pm to 5pm. But now, thanks to the command of the President, even these limited hours have been cut. In the words of one supermarket owner, “Friday limpeza has set the country back fifty years. I am forced to close during three of my most profitable hours of the week”.

Surprisingly, there have been no reports of objections to police strong-armed tactics to enforce what should surely be voluntary participation in “limpeza geral”. Will the police stop at forcing taxis and their occupants out and handing them a broom? Or will they force all private vehicles off the road too, and then force people out of their houses? And if the police can force people off the road, with no legal basis, to engage in vigorous dirt sweeping, then what else will they unlawfully try to force people to do?
Is “limpeza geral” an attempt to encourage civic pride, or is it the first step along a path towards something more sinister?

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