Palestinian workers at Maya Foods join WAC- MAAN to fight for their rights

After years of passivity caused by fear of layoffs, workers in Maya Foods Industries – one of the biggest factories in the settlement industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, have taken […]

After years of passivity caused by fear of layoffs, workers in Maya Foods Industries – one of the biggest factories in the settlement industrial zone of Mishor Adumim, have taken the initiative to unionize with WAC-MAAN. The latter has been active in the Mishor Adumim area for more than a decade and established itself as a voice for workers. The unionization at Maya Foods is the largest and most important challenge WAC has undertaken in the zone. As we publish this report (Sept. 1, 2019), the struggle is far from over.

Maya operates a modern factory that produces for both the domestic and international markets. The company, which is considered successful, employs around 220 people, the vast majority of whom are Palestinian Authority (PA) residents. It is considered one of the largest companies in Mishor Adumim, where some 5000 PA residents are employed. Some of Maya’s employees have been working there for over twenty years without payslips, without social benefits, and with wages that are equal to or below the legal minimum.

New employees hired by the company receive a daily salary of NIS 150 ($42) for work and travel in the initial months. A salary of a worker who is  putting in an average of 10 hours per day should be according to the minimum wage law (including travel costs) at least $80 – twice what these workers get. Veteran workers who have acquired professional knowledge in operating machinery receive minimum wage without overtime pay, do not have a pension fund and do not receive vacation days with pay.

This method of employment is no exception. A large number of settlement area factories employ Palestinian workers at poor wages and without social rights, taking advantage of the high unemployment rate in the Palestinian Authority. For many years there were a number of Maya workers who contacted WAC-MAAN, but unionization failed because of fear amongst the workers. Despite their distress and outrage at their conditions, they feared that anyone who dared to seek justice would be fired on the spot. Hence the dramatic nature of the factory workers’ August initiative to unionize through WAC-MAAN. Within only a few days, over a hundred joined, well beyond the one-third required to establish WAC-MAAN as the union representative.

At the first meeting on Tuesday, August 13, attended by dozens at a cafe near Jericho, there was an atmosphere of tension and excitement. After twenty years of exploitation, they were daring to unionize. Each was aware that his signature on a WAC-MAAN membership form represented a challenge to his supervisor and the company as a whole.

The atmosphere was electric. WAC-MAAN Executive Director Assaf Adiv explained that a collective agreement would regulate their employment, insure their legal rights and benefits, and will include a compensation for previously denied social rights. He stressed that the WAC-MAAN organizers were committed to their struggle, understood the significance of the step they were taking, and would not allow the company to harm them.

The Maya management responded with outrage. After WAC-MAAN notified the factory on August 14 that it was now the union representative, management responded by trying to break  the workers. Those who had been photographed at the meeting near Jericho in a Facebook post were threatened with the words “Whoever appears in the photo will be fired”. The company understood that the workers’ readiness to sign with WAC-MAAN and appear in the picture emphasized their courage. Later the company laid off three of the workers on the pretext of cost reductions, even though it hired eight through a manpower agency that same day. When one of the dismissed asked how the firm could cut workers while hiring others, the foreman replied, “Manpower agency workers are cheaper and have no union.” Additionally, the company attempted to sign the workers onto forms of affiliation to Histadrut Leumit (a union that writes on its website “established in 1934 by Zeev Zabotinsky” – the founder of the right wing Likud Party). Those who refused were threatened with “Anyone who doesn’t sign will be fired”.  It should be noted that despite these intimidations, not one worker who had joined WAC-MAAN reversed his decision. Many approached WAC MAAN asking to reverse their signature to this yellow union and join it.

In response to the company’s resistance, on August 20 WAC-MAAN declared a labor dispute and strike, which by law could commence 15 days after the announcement, i.e. on September 4. In light of layoffs of key union activists, on August 28 it filed an urgent appeal to the Jerusalem Labor Court demanding an interim injunction against the dismissals. The appeal was heard in court that same day in the presence of seven workers. For the first time in their lives, they faced their managers in a position of equality—an empowering experience. At the hearing it was evident that Udi Wertheimer, one of the owners, and Mickey Sinai, the foreman, were surprised and embarrassed by their courage.

Judge Daniel Goldberg’s initial decision included annulment of the layoffs of two workers and the reinstatement of one the next day. It reflected the credibility of their claims and created a new deterrent. The reinstatement of a dismissed worker had never before happened in Maya. We heard from many that after years in a factory where they’d been treated like slaves, they felt free for the first time. One of them said, “So far we have lived in slavery. WAC-MAAN is our liberator.”

Workers also said they did not believe a single word of the managers, and certainly not their promises to improve wages or conditions if they withdrew from the union. They understood that only a labor union can obligate management to print out pay slips and pay for overtime, pension funds and vacations.

The courageous position taken by the workers reflects the high level of trust gained by WAC-MAAN amongst Palestinians following its extensive activity in Mishor Adumim, including the signing of a second collective agreement with the NA Metal Industries plant last July, as well as a previous one with Zarfati Garage. We are witnesses to a growing revolt by Palestinian workers.

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WAC-MAAN has recently published an extensive report on “A decade of organizing Palestinian workers in the Israeli occupied settlements”

אודות Wac-Maan