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Despite having spent 30 years of his life working as a carpenter in Israel, and the past 17 years as a farmer in the southern part of occupied West Bank, Mohammad Issa Salah, 70, still finds himself struggling to make ends meet.
“Here, the cost of living is like Europe, but the wages are like Africa,” the elderly Palestinian from the village of al-Khader tells Equal Times, in what little English he remembers from school.
The old man’s situation is hardly an exception. With a quarter of Palestinians living under the poverty line, and a similar unemployment rate, Palestinians have struggled for decades to make a living and assert their rights in the workplace.
During the past 50 years, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip has unequivocally affected working conditions for Palestinians. At the same time, unions have struggled to rise above political divides to make concrete strides to protect Palestinian workers’ rights.
“The land isn’t the only thing that is occupied – so is the Palestinian economy,” says Matthew Vickery, the author of Employing the Enemy: The Story of Palestinian Labourers on Israeli Settlements.
The hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who found themselves under Israeli military control in 1967 quickly became a source of blue-collar labour for the Israeli economy, performing jobs that few Israelis were willing to do, for far less money and far fewer legal protections.
Meanwhile, the signature of the Protocol on Economic Relations, also known as the Paris Protocol, by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1994 “cemented” the Palestinian economy’s dependence on Israel, Vickery writes.
The protocol notably imposed the use of Israeli currency in the occupied territory, and left Palestinian imports and exports under de facto Israeli control, while allowing Israel to veto requests from the Palestinian Authority (PA) deemed not economically beneficial to the occupying power.
During the Second Intifada (2000-2005), Israeli authorities began severely restricting Palestinian workers’ access to Israel. While Salah remembers being able to drive directly to Israel in a Palestinian-plated car, workers now need to apply for permits and spend hours crossing checkpoints on foot.
Raed, a Palestinian construction worker from the Bethlehem area who requested anonymity, tells Equal Times that he worked illegally in Israel for more than a decade, unable to afford the cost of a work permit yet desperate to earn a living given the lack of opportunities in the West Bank.
“For more than ten years, I always had a feeling of fear, worry, and stress, which reached the point of depression,” Raed says, recalling the anxiety of crossing the Green Line without being caught by the army, or sleeping fitfully at construction sites, fearing police raids.
Meanwhile, an estimated 36,000 Palestinians work in illegal Israeli settlements – a taboo for many in Palestinian society, who perceive these workers as contributing to Israeli colonisation efforts.
“Any worker who goes to the settlements, he feels shame,” Salah says. “But many don’t have a choice. It is either work in Israel or settlements, starve to death, or commit suicide.”
When asked why they worked in Israel instead of the West Bank, both Salah and Raed say they have no other choice given the dire economic situation in the Palestinian territory.
During the half-century he spent in the workforce, Salah says that he had “no encounter” with trade unions. His experience echoed that of many Palestinian workers. A 2013 report by the Arab World for Research and Development (AWRAD) states that 85 per cent of workers have not been “exposed” to trade unions, and that 43 per cent do not trust Palestinian unions.
While trade unions first emerged in Palestine in the 1920s, the movement was severely weakened following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, as many union leaders were exiled to neighbouring countries, or living under Jordanian rule in the West Bank, which repressed labour movements.
From the Six-Day War to the First Intifada, during the first two-and-a-half decades of the occupation, Israel also cracked down on unionists.
“At that time, we worked in two ways. We fought against the occupation, and we fought to support the workers,” Husain Foqahaa, a member of the national secretariat of the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), tells Equal Times. “Many times, we held demonstrations against the occupation, we made announcements and meetings, we supported the PLO. For those reasons, they arrested us.”
The establishment of the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords, followed by the establishment of the PGFTU, which is affiliated with the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), was a hopeful moment for labour rights activists. Palestinians finally had an opportunity to establish labour laws of their own, instead of being simultaneously subjected to Ottoman rule, British Mandate, Jordan, Egyptian, and Israeli legislation.
But while the PA passed a labour law in 2000, followed by legislation establishing social security in 2003, minimum wages in 2012, and a non-state pension system in 2014, Foqahaa admits that enforcement is a huge issue.
Foqahaa says that the minimum wage – a paltry 1,450 shekels (approximately US$414) a month while the poverty line in the occupied Palestinian territories stands at 2,293 shekels (US$655) – and the labour law itself were only implemented in 50 per cent or less of cases.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) commented in May this year that “the legal framework does not in itself guarantee that workers’ rights are respected in practice,” adding that “effective labour inspection services and unfettered access to justice are needed to ensure compliance with the law.”
Foqohaa says that the lack of mechanisms to punish employers violating the laws plays a large role in the crisis. The ILO reported that the PA had 57 official labour inspectors in 2017 – a paltry number given the estimated 745,000 Palestinians working in the West Bank outside of Israeli settlements, according to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics data.
According to the AWRAD report, 46 per cent of Palestinian workers say they are not aware of their rights. In addition, the 27 per cent rate of unemployment – which reaches as much as 41 per cent in the besieged Gaza Strip – also discourages workers from asserting themselves in the workplace. With such high unemployment rates, workers know they can be fired and easily replaced if they dare to speak out.
“The main problem we are facing is that the Palestinian government doesn’t have any strategic plan for social or economic issues,” Foqahaa says.
While the PGFTU member mainly faults the PA for not making workers’ rights a priority, he condemns Palestinian trade unions for failing to uphold their responsibilities vis-a-vis Palestinian workers.
“The workers are suffering a lot from the Palestinian government, from the Israeli government, from the Palestinian employers, the Israeli employers, and nobody takes care of their rights, not even the PGFTU. I feel shame because we are not working as well as we can to support the workers.”
“We create many committees, hold many meetings, many workshops, but on the ground, nothing is implemented,” Foqahaa adds.
Foqahaa believes that the heavy influence of different political parties over the various unions has effectively made the federations – which include organisations such as the General Union of Palestinian Workers, linked to the PLO – lose sight of their raison d’être. He alleges that each of the five main Palestinian union federations at a national level are affiliated to separate parties – with the PGFTU itself tied to Fatah, the ruling party of the increasingly unpopular PA.
“We are not allowed to hold meetings, to take decisions, without the political parties,” says Foqahaa, adding that Palestinian trade unions needed to rise above political divisions to effectively advocate for workers.
In a statement to Equal Times, the Palestinian Ministry of Labour glosses over the criticisms levied against the government, saying that the labour law is being implemented “in an acceptable manner.”
The ministry also simply describes the relationship between the PA and trade unions as an “integrative relationship and partnership” to establish new laws regulating working conditions in the West Bank.
But back in the village of al-Khader, Salah says he is pessimistic for the future so long as Palestinian authorities remain unconcerned by the fate of the Palestinian working class.
“What solution? There is no solution,” the old man says. “For workers, there is no easy choice.”
[Chloé Benoist is a French journalist who has been based in the Middle East since 2011, and is currently working in the West Bank. She writes mostly about politics and social justice.]