Timor-Leste is a multiparty, parliamentary republic. After May 2018 parliamentary elections, which were free, fair, and peaceful, Taur Matan Ruak became prime minister, leading a three-party coalition government. The 2017 presidential and parliamentary elections were also free and fair. In contrast with previous years, these elections were conducted without extensive assistance from the international community.
The national police (PNTL) maintain internal security. The military (F-FDTL) is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. The PNTL reports to the Ministry of Interior, and the F-FDTL reports to the Ministry of Defense. The minister of defense was the acting minister of interior during the year. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: corruption; violence against women; and forced child labor.
The government took some steps to prosecute members and officials of the security services who used excessive force but avoided conducting corruption (and labor law) investigations of politicians, government members, and leaders of the country’s independence struggle. Public perceptions of impunity persisted.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system promoted freedom of expression, including for the press.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status; however, the system does not align with international standards. There were concerns that regulations governing asylum and refugee status may preclude genuine refugees from proving their eligibility for such status. For example, persons who wish to apply for asylum have only 72 hours to do so after entering the country. Foreign nationals already present in the country have only 72 hours to initiate the process after the situation in their home country becomes too dangerous for a safe return.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The penal code provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government faced many challenges in implementing the law, and the perception that officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity was widespread. The anticorruption commission (CAC) is charged with leading national anticorruption activities and has the authority to refer cases for prosecution; however, the CAC and the Prosecutor’s Office did not routinely cooperate with each other on investigations. Although the CAC is independent, the government controls its budget, making it vulnerable to political pressure. Parliament selected the former director of public defense, Sergio Hornai, as the CAC’s third commissioner in January following a six-month vacancy. Institutions with the power and the competence to address corruption avoided investigations of politicians, government members, and leaders and veterans of the country’s independence struggle. The government undertook surprise inspections of government-run programs and increased pressure to implement asset-management and transparency systems.
Corruption: During the year the CAC continued investigations on corruption cases; however, there were no corruption-related convictions, sentences, or hearings as of November. Anecdotally, corruption was widespread among government officials. There were accusations of police, including border police, involvement in corruption–most commonly bribery and abuse of power. Allegations of nepotism in government hiring were common. The customs service was under scrutiny for alleged corruption related to incoming goods, but no cases were filed. The 2016 National Risk Assessment of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing called corruption endemic.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires that the highest members of government declare their assets to the Court of Appeals, but the declarations do not have to be made public, and there are no criminal penalties for noncompliance. Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak made a public asset disclosure after taking office in June 2018.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A wide variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials usually cooperated with these organizations, although the government did not always respond to their recommendations.
Government Human Rights Bodies: By law the independent PDHJ is responsible for the promotion of human rights and good governance and has its own budget and dedicated staff. It has the power to investigate and monitor human rights abuses and governance standards as well as make recommendations, including for prosecution, to relevant authorities. The PDHJ has satellite offices in Manufahi, Maliana, Oecusse, and Baucau. During the year the office investigated and monitored land evictions, access to justice, governance, prisoner complaints, and abuse by security forces. There were no reports of significant government interference. The PDHJ, in cooperation with the UN Human Rights Adviser’s Unit, provided human rights training to the PNTL and the F-FDTL.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
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. The law also does not apply to public-sector workers or domestic workers.
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 Vocational Training and Employment (SEPFOPE) 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. According to SEPFOPE, the most common labor issues were terminations where employers did not follow the procedures outlined in local labor law. The trade union confederation registered 174 complaints of alleged violations of labor rights between January and August. Many disputes involved employees who alleged dismissal without cause or firing upon returning from sick or maternity leave.
Violations of the labor code are punishable by fines and other penalties, but they were not sufficient to deter violations. Alleged violations included failure to provide maternity benefits, nonpayment of wages, and unfair dismissal. The trade union confederation noted some companies led by veterans of the country’s independence struggle did not respect labor laws, believing their status would excuse any violations.
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.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The penal code prohibits and criminalizes coercion, grave coercion, and slavery. The penal code also considers forced labor and deceptive hiring practices to be a form of human trafficking. The government did not effectively enforce the law. SEPFOPE inspections increased during the year as compared with the previous year. The law prescribes imprisonment penalties; however, these were not sufficient to deter violations.
The law prescribes fines, judicial dissolution, and asset forfeiture as penalties, and authorizes compensation of victims. The Interagency Working Group to Combat Human Trafficking conducted training sessions for law enforcement and met six times during the year to discuss a range of migration-related issues in addition to trafficking.
Forced labor of adults and children occurred (see section 7.c.) but was not widespread. At times persons from rural areas who came to Dili in pursuit of better educational and employment prospects were subjected to domestic servitude. Family members placed children in bonded household and agricultural labor, primarily in rural areas, to pay off family debts.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. Under the law, it is not illegal to procure or offer a 17-year-old child for prostitution, pornography, or pornographic performances or for illicit activities, such as the production and trafficking of drugs. Under the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182, all of the worst forms of child labor must be specifically outlawed for all children younger than 18. The law applies only to those younger than 17.
The law prohibits child labor and specifically prohibits children younger than 15 from working, except in “light work” and in vocational training programs for children ages 13 to 15. The labor law prohibits children younger than 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. By year’s end the government had 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 SEPFOPE 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 law also mandates equal pay. The government did not effectively enforce the law’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 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 above the official national poverty level.
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 government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations.
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 discussing labor concerns only 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. There were no major industrial accidents.