Every June, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) releases its Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights. According to a press release that accompanied the 2010 publication (which reports on events in 2009), “the Middle East remains among the regions of the world where union rights are least protected.” The report describes repression meted out to Palestinian workers and trade unionists by both the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian factions. But ITUC’s omissions and brevity both disguise the complexity of life for Palestinian workers, and reveal some of the union confederation’s own biases.
The most violent repression of Palestinian trade union activities came, as in previous years, from the Israeli military. A May Day march of around 250 persons in Bethlehem was stopped by Israeli soldiers who fired sound grenades and tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, injuring demonstrators. Three workers and a journalist were arrested, according to the ITUC. Another march, in East Jerusalem, which was deliberately kept low-key by its organizers from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions was also broken up. And in July of last year, Israeli soldiers surrounded and raided the Biddya home of Palestinian Workers Union head and Fatah campaigner Yasser Taha, detaining him for questioning as a “wanted activist.”
Among other events outlined in the 2010 Survey was the strike held by 16,000 workers with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees and one of the largest employers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling for the reinstatement of 312 West Bank colleagues fired for violating the organization’s “non-partisan” policy. UNRWA workers also went on strike to demand pay increases in line with Palestinian Authority (PA) staff and UN employees elsewhere in the world. Public sector workers in both the West Bank and Gaza had multiple disputes with both the PA and Hamas authorities over late payment of wages, mainly due to Israel’s withholding of revenues owed.
In September 2009, rising tensions between the PA and transport, education and health unions over late payment of overtime and transport costs culminated in the Health Ministry sacking Osama al-Najjar, head of the health professionals union, and a colleague. Al-Najjar had publicly accused the Ministry of “targeting union activities” and avoiding dialogue. During a radio interview, PA Health Minister Fathi Abu Moghli referred to the ensuing strike by health workers as “illegal.” Union leaders demanded an urgent meeting with appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
In Gaza, meanwhile, the ITUC described conditions for trade unionists as “extremely difficult,” commenting that the exercise of freedom of association or collective bargaining was simply not possible, partly because trade union membership tended to be bound up in ongoing clashes between Hamas and Fatah. In 2008, Al-Jazeera reported Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) claims that its offices in Gaza had been seized by Hamas authorities and when staff refused to negotiate over their future role, several were subjected to assassination attempts and other harassment. Hamas spokesmen have made similar counter-claims against the largely Fatah-linked PGFTU in the West Bank.
According to Khaled Hroub, author of Hamas: A Beginner’s Guide, the association of trade unions with specific political factions is deep-rooted. “Initially, Hamas’ interest in trade unions stemmed from a Muslim Brotherhood culture that focuses on these institutions as hubs of cultivating support and popularity,” Hroub explained in an interview with The Electronic Intifada. “Hamas’ activism in trade unions is more political than professional — using unions as political platforms for higher goals. This doesn’t mean that Hamas-led unions have been entirely political, but what I mean is that the main impetus was driven by finding venues to express their political [and resistance] views.”
The ITUC’s has publically rejected Hamas, which it declared at its June 2010 congress in Canada as “extremist” and blamed for inciting the winter 2008-09 assault on Gaza through its rocket attacks on southern Israel. While he does not share that assessment, Hroub does agree with the confederation’s analysis that Hamas has dealt severely with trade unions which are not affiliated to it.
“Once in power, Hamas became the regime that put these unions under check and heat if they raise the ceiling of criticism against the Hamas status quo,” Hroub said. “Those unions that remained outside Hamas control in Gaza are subjected to harsh measures that are almost identical to those imposed on Hamas-controlled unions by the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s and until the 2006 elections.”
The Islamic trade unions with which Hamas works are almost entirely rejected by both the Ramallah-based Democracy & Workers Rights Center (DWRC), an explicitly non-affiliated labor rights organization which has campaigned against perceived inaction and corruption amongst the established trade unions, as well as by the PGFTU.
Salwa Alinat works with the Israeli labor rights nongovernmental organization Kav LaOved (Workers’ Hotline), supporting Palestinian workers employed in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. She describes a similar situation there to the one in Gaza outlined by Khaled Hroub. She reports that “in the past, the trade unions have not been interested in dealing with the workers. There are two or three trade unions divided according to political lines, and they are not really in contact with the workers, so there are problems of trust. To join a trade union, until recently, was a political act, like joining a party. It’s not like in the West where a trade union is something that looks after a worker’s interests.”
The political nature of trade unions also means that even if employers do not discriminate against workers as trade union members per se, they may discriminate against them on the basis of their political affiliations. This is a widespread problem, according to several reports by the DWRC.
As well as infringements of trade union rights by Palestinian employers and by the Israeli military and Palestinian faction authorities within the West Bank and Gaza, the ITUC’s Israel report also raises the issue of discrimination against Palestinian workers in Israel and in Israeli settlements. Here, the shortcomings of ITUC’s approach become apparent. The confederation has been accused of bias towards the Histadrut, literally the “General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel,” an ITUC member alongside the PGFTU. This accusation is likely to gain ground with the June 2010 appointment of Histadrut head Ofer Eini as an ITUC vice-president and executive member.
ITUC’s report on conditions for Palestinian workers in Israel — whether citizens of Israel or West Bank laborers working with or without permits in Israel — does acknowledge that “Palestinian workers in Israel, even with permits, are hounded by the authorities and are often subject to abuse, illegal detentions and deportations while Israeli Arabs [Palestinian citizens in Israel] are subject to extensive employment-related discrimination.”
The ITUC admits that “Palestinians who work in Israel enjoy freedom of association [but] they may not elect or be elected to trade union leadership bodies,” apparently referring to West Bank Palestinians working in Israel; the report seems to differentiate between these and Palestinian citizens of Israel by using the term “Israeli Arabs.” The ITUC report also notes that in November 2009 the Histadrut amended its constitution to allow migrant workers, brought to Israel in large numbers, mainly from southeast Asia to work in the domestic service and agricultural sectors, to join the union with “equal rights.” According to the ITUC, this explicitly does include Palestinian workers from the West Bank or Gaza working within Israel.
In 2008, the Histadrut finally started to repay union dues which since 1970 it had been docking from the pay of every Palestinian employee of an Israeli employer, claiming that half of this income would be handed to the PGFTU. This was the outcome of an agreement reached in 1995, but the 2008 move has remained controversial after it was used by Israeli sympathizers to argue against boycott calls.
The Progressive Labour Action Front, linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, issued a statement noting that “the Histadrut is engaging, as part of the world Zionist movement, in an international campaign designed to undermine international labor support for the Palestinian people and to oppose the Palestinian and international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. As part of this campaign, the Histadrut issued a statement on ‘peace and cooperation’ posted on the [ITUC] website on 11 September 2009.”
The ITUC also reported specific abuses by Israeli employers of Palestinian workers in West Bank settlements. These included the sacking and suspension of Jahleen Bedouin workers at the Maaleh Adumim municipality after they went on strike demanding to be allowed to attend Friday prayers, and the illegally low pay, lack of medical benefits and threats of violence against mainly women workers in a textile factory at Barkan, near Ariel settlement. The report notes that “The situation of these workers is exacerbated by the fact that often Israeli authorities abandon the Palestinian workers to their employers by not inspecting their working conditions, especially in the West Bank settlements.”
Although it engages with accusations of discrimination by settlement-based companies, ITUC’s report neglects to mention the steady increase in discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The sacking of several dozen Palestinian employees by Israel Railways in March 2009, for instance, comes well within the report’s remit, but is ignored.
Israel Railways told Israeli newspaper Haaretz at the time of the sackings that “it would employ only army veterans in the positions these employees held.” The sackings became a high-profile story in Israel after Israel Railways was forced by Tel Aviv Labor Court to postpone the sackings, and then changed its story to claim that mistakes by the employees had caused the changes in recruitment policy. This is part of a growing trend of excluding Arab workers because Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the Israeli army, which anecdotal evidence suggests stretches from informal employment such as restaurant jobs to major national corporations.
While Palestinian workers, whether inside Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West bank, are not properly represented by the Histadrut, Palestinian trade unions are also barred from offering them practical help.
Wael Natheef, general secretary of the Jericho branch of the PGFTU and a member of the union’s executive committee, told The Electronic Intifada: “As trade unionists we often cannot do anything. The settlements are forbidden to us and we cannot go to the Israeli courts.”
Unions are also hampered by small budgets because of their low membership rates, which have been used as an argument against their grassroots legitimacy. As a result, legal cases brought by Palestinian settlement workers against Israeli factories, such as Royalife in Barkan and Soda Club in Mishor Adumim, have often been dependent on support from Israeli organizations such as Kav LaOved.
“We established this branch [of the PGFTU] in 1993 after the Oslo agreement,” says Natheef. “We worked as unionists before then, but underground, because you had to get permission from the Israeli authorities at Beit El to hold a meeting or organize something. After Oslo we rented this building and continued, but it is still very difficult.”
Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.