Labour struggle in West Bank belies claims of harmony

By Alex MaCdonald Published in the Middle East Eye. To the article Dismissal of trade union organiser as ‘security risk’ highlights trials facing organised workers in West Bank settlements Hatem...

By Alex MaCdonald

Published in the Middle East Eye. To the article

Dismissal of trade union organiser as ‘security risk’ highlights trials facing organised workers in West Bank settlements

Hatem Abu-Ziadeh, a 44-year old Palestinian car mechanic employed at the Mishor Adumim industrial zone near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, has been unable to work for six months.

In July, as leader of a workers committee in the Zarfaty car garage, he helped organise industrial action against his Israeli employers after they refused to recognise a union set up by the garage workers to challenge poor working conditions.

WAC-MAAN (Workers’ Advice Centre) is one of the first trade unions to operate in a West Bank industrial zone; manufacturing hubs set up in areas occupied and controlled by Israel and deemed illegal under international law. The union is jointly led by Israelis and Palestinians and represents on behalf of Palestinians working for Israeli companies in the West Bank.

In July, Abu-Ziadeh, a stocky man with a round face and a faint moustache, delivered a letter to his employer, an Israeli named Morris Zarfaty, announcing a planned strike by the workers in protest at low wages, the lack of proper wage slips, vacation, sickness pay, a pension fund and overtime pay.

A few days after the strike Abu-Ziadeh found that his work-permit – which he requires to travel from his home in the town of Birzeit to work in the industrial zone – had been cancelled by Israeli authorities. The managers of the garage had told the security services that Abu-Ziadeh had “sabotaged a military vehicle” and was a potential “security risk”.

Both Abu-Ziadeh and the labour union say that the complaint was a lie intended to undermine the workers and their newly-formed union.

“I was targeted because I am a member of the workers’ committee in the union,” Abu-Ziadeh, who had worked at the garage for 17 years, told Middle East Eye. “I speak on behalf of the union within the garage. Because of this, they levelled a politically-motivated accusation against me, so that I won’t be around at the garage to protect the workers.”

4 months later, in later November, after a lobbying campaign by the union and an appeal to Israel’s high court of justice, the attorney general announced that Abu-Ziadeh’s permit would be reinstated. However, since permits are only renewed every four months, it could be some time before he is able to return to work.

“We suffered a lot after my work licence was revoked,” he said. “There are six children in my family, plus me and my wife: eight altogether. While I couldn’t work, we were living on a monthly pension of 2,000 shekels [$500]. How could we live on that? It was a very, very hard time.”

Abu-Ziadeh will still need his employer to reapply for his permit.

Abu-Ziadeh’s ongoing struggle may yet prove crucial in challenging exploitative conditions faced by the other 7,500 Palestinians working in the Mishor Adumim industrial zone.

Assaf Adiv, the 62-year old Israeli director of the WAC-MAAN trade union, told MEE that the decision of the Israeli authorities to return Abu Ziadeh’s permit was a breakthrough that could inspire other workers to challenge their employers for better rights.

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