Stitches in Time

The South Asian tailors of Timor-Leste weave their own dreams

30 November 2021
While flying out of Timor-Leste is affordable only for a narrow segment of the rich, people from all economic strata want new clothes for a multitude of social events.
Aashna Jamal
While flying out of Timor-Leste is affordable only for a narrow segment of the rich, people from all economic strata want new clothes for a multitude of social events.
Aashna Jamal

As he closed up his tailoring shop in Abbottabad, one evening in 2013, Shoukat Hayat Khan received a phone call from an old friend. It was an invitation to relocate to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste, where he could earn a guaranteed salary of three hundred dollars a month. Khan, who used to make uniforms for cadets at the nearby military academy, sold his shop and gathered around three thousand dollars to make the trip. He was soon making a thousand dollars a month in salary and commissions and, once his contract expired, he decided to open his own shop.

The friend and his brother had been inviting Pakistani tailors to work in their shops since the early 2000s, tapping into their social networks—friends, family, acquaintances and even UN peacekeeping forces, who remained in the country until 2012—for contacts. Many of the tailors had never heard of Timor-Leste, but decided to take a chance on the promise of airfare and a three-year contract. Today, a motley crew of South Asians weave their own dreams as they stitch other people’s clothes.

Timor-Leste was a curious land of opportunity. A month after the Portuguese ended four hundred years of colonial rule, in November 1975, it was invaded by Indonesia and managed to gain its independence only in 2002, after a bloody struggle. The brother of Khan’s friend, a Pakistani businessman based in Indonesia, had travelled to Timor-Leste soon after to look for business opportunities. As Indonesian tailors fled the country, he realised he could help fill the vacuum. Other South Asians migrated to Dili over the next few years, and the first Pakistani shops faced stiff competition from Indian and Bangladeshi outfits.

Aashna Jamal is an economist from Kashmir who likes to tell stories of all the places she lives in. She was posted as an overseas development fellow in the Timor-Leste government's finance ministry between 2018 and 2020.

Keywords: South East Asia migrant workers
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