Employers fear “Zarfati precedent”, raise Palestinian workers’ wages

Following the signing of the agreement, many employers in the industrial zone have raised their workers’ wages to minimum and begun issuing proper wage slips in an effort to keep their workers satisfied and thus avoid unionizing.

In February 2017, the trade union WAC-MAAN signed a groundbreaking collective agreement with Zarfati Garage in the Mishor Adumim Industrial Zone. Until they unionized with WAC, the Palestinian workers employed by the garage were receiving wages below the minimum, with few social benefits and no proper wage slips. Following the signing of the agreement, many employers in the industrial zone have raised their workers’ wages to minimum and begun issuing proper wage slips in an effort to keep their workers satisfied and thus avoid unionizing. But are minimum standards sufficient? Experience suggests not, but there are ways of improving the situation.

Some 30,000 Palestinians from the West Bank are employed in industrial zones and Israeli settlements, many of them in Mishor Adumim, east of Jerusalem, and in the Barkan Industrial Zone, south of Nablus. Most of these workers labor under exploitative terms, often up to 12 hours a day for just NIS 120-150 (Israeli minimum wage for 8.30 hours day is now NIS 241.70), with no social benefits or wage slips – contrary to legal requirements. Many of the workers are unable to sue their employer, among other reasons because they cannot prove the hours they have worked or even that they had worked at all. At best, a case against an employer will get the worker partial compensation but he’ll also lose his job. In the Barkan zone, employers even drew up a blacklist of workers who had filed suits against their employers and prevented them from getting a job in the zone.

This complex situation should be put in the context of high unemployment in the Palestinian Authority (PA) areas and the fact that wages for a professional worker in Palestinian cities rarely rise above 2,000-2,500 NIS per month. A Palestinian worker who “succeeds” in finding an Israeli employer in a settlement or industrial zone will think twice before risking his job and finding himself dependent on the job supply in the PA areas, with an even lower wage.

The workers at Zarfati Garage broke this vicious circle in 2013, when they decided to unionize with WAC and set up the first workers’ committee of Palestinian workers in an Israeli workplace. The employer’s first response was to raise the wages of all the workers to minimum wage, which meant a raise of some NIS 1,000 per month. After four years of struggle, the dismissal of the committee chair, false accusations filed with the police, and the reinstatement of the chair by Labor Court order, the employer was finally compelled to sign a collective agreement with WAC. This agreement, signed in 2017, was precedential. It not only granted the workers minimum benefits but also compensation for past debts and a professional wage scale based on seniority. Thus the workers’ wages were significantly raised, and today the garage is considered the best place to work in the industrial zone.

The results of the struggle influenced other workplaces in the area. Since the agreement was signed, WAC activists have heard that many employers have raised workers’ wages to the legal minimum, to keep them satisfied and reduce their motivation to unionize. Wage slips seen by WAC suggest that employers are also beginning to issue proper wage slips and even pay into pension funds, something almost unheard of until recently.

Even if the employers are merely trying to avoid unionizing, these improvements should be welcomed. However, this is not the end of the story. Firstly, many workers, especially the young or unskilled, continue to work in exploitative conditions, with low wages and without proper wage slips. Secondly, skilled and experienced workers – such as industrial workers, carpenters, and mechanics – should not make do with minimum wage, particularly as many are the only breadwinner in their family.

The Zarfati case shows how much power workers can get when they unionize and set up a workers’ committee, even when they face a tough situation as Palestinian workers face. This is the only road open to workers employed in settlements to improve the terms of their employment while keeping their job. The employer may pay what he is required to pay by law (or he may not even pay that), but he is highly unlikely to pay more than that. To ensure they get their basic rights and can earn a decent living, Palestinian workers – just like their colleagues in Israel – must join a union and struggle for a collective agreement.

WAC, which strives for equality and peace, is the natural choice for Palestinian workers who want to unionize in these zones. Join the union today!

 

אודות Yoav Gal Tamir