Employer turns Palestinian union organizer into a ‘security threat’

By Haggai Matar. Published on Local Call website on February 16, 2016 Hatem Abu Ziadeh spent almost 20 years working at an auto repair shop in a West Bank industrial zone....

By Haggai Matar. Published on Local Call website on February 16, 2016

Hatem Abu Ziadeh spent almost 20 years working at an auto repair shop in a West Bank industrial zone. But once he began organizing workers for better conditions, he was fired for ‘security-based reasons.’

Hatem Abu Ziadeh (Photo courtesy of WAC-MAAN)

In many respects, this is a painfully simple and well-known story: a veteran factory worker decides to unionize his fellow workers in order to protect their rights. All of a sudden, after many years of work, the employer remembers that the veteran is actually a poor worker who must be fired immediately.

Like in innumerable cases, the employer provides a variety of reasons for the dismissal. The union turns to the labor court, but the wheels of justice turn slowly: more than half a year passes since the end of the hearings, and yet we see no ruling. The worker — whose job was his entire life — sits at home for the past year and a half without being able to make a decent living.

But the case of Hatem Abu Ziadeh is especially complex and dramatic because of its unique context: Abu Ziadeh is a Palestinian worker in a settlement industrial zone. Palestinian workers organizations refuse, on principle, to represent Palestinians who work in settlements, while Israel’s Histadrut labor federation does not unionize Palestinian workers in the occupied territories, turning the industrial zones a kind of “no man’s land” where violations of workers’ rights are commonplace. And this despite the fact that Israeli labor laws apply to these industrial zones (aside from one, where employers can legally discriminate against Palestinian workers).

The union led by Abu Ziadeh, which was organized with the help of Ma’an Workers Advice Center (WAC), is an unprecedented first of its kind attempt to unionize workers who work in this no man’s land — what Ma’an terms “the twilight zone of labor law.” That is exactly why the continued silence of Israel’s Labor Court is so frustrating.

A threat to state security?

Let’s start at the beginning. Hatem Abu Ziadeh, a 45-year-old mechanic and father of six, is a Palestinian subject of Israel’s military regime in the occupied territories. He lives in a village near Nablus, and has driven to the Zarfati Garage in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone — a drive of at least two hours a day — where he has worked every day for the past 17 years. Not a single complaint has been filed against him all these years.

According to Abu Ziadeh and Ma’an, the employment policies were especially harmful, leading the workers there to unionize at the end of 2013. According to the union, it took time until the management agreed to sit down with them to negotiate. Once the scope of the demands became clear, the management decided to take down the union.

Employees at the Zarfati Garage in Mishur Adumim vote to strike on July 22, 2014. (Photo courtesy of Ma’an workers union)

In July 2014, the management found a golden opportunity: while war was raging in Gaza, during a wave of dismissals of Arab workers across Israel, Zarfati fired Abu Ziadeh. At first, the management argued that he had a truancy and disciplinary problems at work. However, after Ma’an turned to the labor court, the management came up with a new reason: Abu Ziadeh was fired for “security-based” reasons. Which reasons? The management claimed that Abu Ziadeh had purposefully sabotaged an IDF vehicle that had been brought in to the shop, and therefore tried to put soldiers’ lives in danger during wartime.

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