Backing themselves: East Timorese labour migrants in Oxford

Andrew McWilliam

Andrew was a visiting academic at COMPAS September –December 2014. His blog post reports on recent research with migrants in Oxford.

Most afternoons in East Oxford, one can find small groups of young Timorese men gathered in the ubiquitous gambling shops of Ladbrokes, Betfred and similar along the busy streets of Cowley Road and Templar Square. Favouring their chances on the digital roulette machines or football betting, gambling represents a congenial break from the monotony of 12 hour work shifts, a place to catch up with mates and always the possibility of a windfall gain when the numbers go their way.

smart shoes leaning against wallThese young men represent a small proportion of the growing East Timorese migrant community, who have arrived in numbers on Portuguese passports following the historic achievement of independence from Indonesia in 2002. The majority seek employment in the low and semi-skilled services sector and factories of the city. Here they count themselves lucky to earn minimum wages (£220/ week), but through shared living arrangements and careful spending many are able to save upwards of £300 a month, far more than the USD4 a day on offer in their homeland where poverty and unemployment persist. Much of these savings are remitted home to support families and loved ones for a variety of needs including everyday consumption, rebuilding houses, supporting the education of siblings, and as contributions to life cycle rituals of exchange (especially marriages and funerals) which remain regular expressions of a revitalised sociality still recovering from the dislocations of 24 years of militarised occupation.

The Timorese connection with Oxford has its origins in the resistance struggle. In the 1990s, small numbers of Timorese activists were granted political asylum to Portugal and found their way to the UK to continue their demonstrations and protest against Indonesia. Over time these pioneers provided a pathway for others to follow, joining the now familiar chain of connections linking Timor-Leste with the UK, and following in the footsteps of siblings and familial contacts offering temporary accommodation and prospective access to employment.

East Timorese are highly visible on the streets of places like Cowley and Blackbird Leys at least to those who are familiar with their look and dress. But for the majority of citizens they remain invisible, merging as they do into the rich multi-cultural mix of resident migrants in contemporary Oxford. My local contacts estimate that as many as 2000 Timorese might now be living and working in the city; certainly enough to support 9 football teams drawn from the Timorese migrant community and playing in an irregular competition during the season. Their numbers also continue to rise with new arrivals appearing on a regular basis, embracing their youthful desires to consume modernity and the financial gains they learn about through social media and the material evidence of success back home.

The comparative invisibility of Timorese migrants extends to the Oxford City Council which maintains a detailed website on the demographic profiles of its residents. I initially thought they may be classified as Portuguese, given that they all travel on Portuguese passports and gain legal entry to the UK as citizens of the EU. But official numbers of Portuguese are relatively low and certainly include the resident ethnic Portuguese community. More likely Timorese migrants are subsumed under the general category of ‘Asian Other’ or ‘South East Asian’, but even here the numbers for the key Timorese residential areas seem low.  One possibility for these apparent discrepancies was suggested by a Timorese respondent who considered that during the Census (2011), wherein these statistics derive, a proportion of Timorese may have declined to fill in the forms, conscious of their poor English language skills and wary of the authorities, especially given the commonplace practice of crowding into rental accommodation to avoid high rents, a practice that attracts disapproval and sanction from the Council.

street signThe Timorese migrants to Oxford are also a mobile community and since the economic slowdown in the UK and Europe, they have tended to disperse more widely to other towns following news from friends and job prospects elsewhere. These outreach centres include places like London, Crewe, Slough, Norwich, Dover, Peterborough and Bristol among others. Many of these centres have developed industrial outskirts with bulk and retail packaging operations for major food retailers like Morrisons, Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s and Pick and Pack. Here in the twilight world of the continuous 8 hour shift, Timorese workers compete with Polish migrants for a slice of the regular if modest wages on offer.

Timorese experiences in the UK are highly consistent with those of other migrant communities escaping economic hardship and conflict, and like other migrants the experience of arrival cities like Oxford is an emotionally mixed one where loss and longing for distant families intermingles with new opportunities and prospects for a better life.

Author affiliation: Andrew McWilliam, Associate Professor, Australian National University