‘When you’ve sold the camel, don’t fret about the reins’

Haj Muhammad Fukara is the living spirit of the ongoing strike at the Salit quarry. For 27 of his 52 years he has worked here, almost from the day it was opened beside his family's shacks. These are in a wadi near Mishor Adumim, a few miles east of Jerusalem. Fukara has always known the place as Khan al-Akhmar, the Red Caravanserai.
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Muhammad Fukara. Photo by: Erez Wagner

Interview with Salit Striker Muhammad Fukara

Haj Muhammad Fukara is the living spirit of the ongoing strike at the Salit quarry. For 27 of his 52 years he has worked here, almost from the day it was opened beside his family’s shacks. These are in a wadi near Mishor Adumim, a few miles east of Jerusalem. Fukara has always known the place as Khan al-Akhmar, the Red Caravanserai.

Under an improvised tent at the quarry entrance, after more than a month on strike, Fukara radiates confidence in the power of the workers and in the struggle they have chosen. “Whatever may be the results of the strike, I feel that we’re restoring to ourselves the power that’s been drained from us through the years. We are making the management realize that we’ll no longer put up with humiliation and belittlement.”

In 1968, at the age of ten, Furka left school and began shepherding the family flock. “In those days,” he says, “we had a large flock, which supported us. We were able to roam without limit. But this situation gradually changed as army camps and settlements began to spring up. Area after area was closed, and pasturage dwindled. We were forced to sell a big part of the herd and I began working as an assistant to a land surveyor, a job that kept me on the go.”

At this time Fukara married a Palestinian from Jordan. He then had to get a permit for family unification, so that his wife could come over and live with him. For this he had to apply to the Civil Administration in the settlement of Bethel. “I’d go every Monday,” he recalls. “I’d wait from eight in the morning till two in the afternoon, and no one even looked at me. It took weeks until someone finally led me inside for a meeting. In the room sat an Israeli officer. He explained that if I wanted my wife to enter, I would have to agree to work with him and give him information about goings-on. I told him to forget it and left. Not long after that, though, I got the permit, and my wife came over to live in our house. It was around that time that the quarry opened up next to us, and I got a job there.”

What are your first memories of the quarry?

“It was quite small then and employed only six. The owner and manager was Uzi Caleb from Jerusalem. He was a man who knew how to listen to workers. Two or three times we went on strike, demanding more wages, and every time he took us seriously, checked other alternatives, and agreed to our claims in order to get production going again.

“The 1990’s were years of prosperity at the quarry. It worked around the clock and made nice profits. An asphalt plant was built. There was a boom in paving bypass roads as a result of the Oslo Agreement, and the asphalt plant supplied materials. Salit’s location is ideal. It’s 15 miles from the road to the Qalandia checkpoint and Road No. 60, which joins Ramallah to Nablus.

“The workers had a lot to do with the quarry’s success, but in exchange they got only miniscule raises, without social benefits or security. For example, we had a worker from Jericho, Yehya Khader, who got sick. During his illness he received nothing from the quarry, and after his death the management refused to pay compensation to his widow.”

Fukara remembers Yehya Khader well. “He was the chief operator for the asphalt operation. For ten years he used to work around the clock, without counting hours. In 2006 he became ill with heart problems. When he returned to the quarry with a pacemaker, he requested a transfer to another job, one without high-tension electricity, as his doctor had recommended. Management asked him to work on a tractor. His age and physical condition prevented him from mounting and operating a tractor, so he had to stop working at Salit. A short time later he was diagnosed with cancer and was taken to a hospital in Amman. When I heard about it, I went and visited him. A few months later he died. On the day of the funeral we asked the quarry management to let us leave early and they refused. We ignored their refusal and went to the funeral.”

Can you say more about how management related to Yehya’s illness?

When he fell ill, I went to the management along with his brother, who still works at Salit. We asked them to give him compensation and a regular allotment. Their answer was: He didn’t work here for free, he was paid for his work; whoever doesn’t work isn’t paid. After his death, the family sued the quarry in the Labor Court and got part of the compensation. But the problem isn’t just money. Here is a management that demeans its workers. A good manager knows how to appreciate a worker who has put his soul into the job. At Salit they simply don’t comprehend this very basic thing.”

What kind of work do you do at the quarry?

“For some years now I’ve been operating a tractor/jackhammer combo. Explosives were once used to get rock from the mountain, but this is now forbidden, and the combo has become the main tool at the quarry. I sit in the driver’s cabin and claw rock from the mountain with a super-powerful hammer, which makes a tremendous amount of noise and shakes my whole body. It is difficult work and it wears you down. I mount the combo at the mountain in the morning, do my job and go home. I hardly ever see the managers. I’m the one who decides where exactly to hammer, since I know the mountain better than anyone. The quarrying is done on a rocky slope, so there’s a lot of risk. I have to be extremely cautious. Any thoughtless movement can lead to disaster.”

Why did you decide to organize?

“The owner, Uzi Caleb, died in 1999, and Yehezkel (Hezi) Soroka became the quarry’s manager and general director. We felt that there was no longer any readiness on the part of the management to listen to us. The case of Yehya Khader was the breaking point: we began to realize that we had to have a body that would defend us and guarantee our rights. For a number of years we sought a connection with a lawyer or organization that would guide us and prevent a situation where one of us would be injured and remain defenseless. Workers from East Jerusalem told us about the Maan branch there [WAC-MAAN, the Workers Advice Center – Ed.]. The meeting with Maan was unforgettable. I felt that we’d at last seen the light at the end of the tunnel, that here was someone who would lead us out of the crisis in which we were stuck. We felt as if the world had opened before us and from that day on we would know what we had coming and how to keep our rights from being trampled on.”

How did unionization affect the workers in general?

“Suddenly there was a unity among us that had not been there before. Suddenly we had power to force the owner to pay us. To be honest, if the management had behaved differently, we might never have gotten as far as unionization. But because of the harm and humiliation that each of us suffered through the years, we had no choice but to organize. Maan’s entry into the picture began to bear fruit. For the first time ever, the management provided medical check-ups, and for the first time ever they had to issue salary slips. You need to know that we used to get our wages in cash, and later in checks without salary slips. It’s clear that the management only made these changes because it was forced to, thanks to our organization.”

What is the significance of the agreement that the striking workers are fighting for?

“Its significance is the shifting of the quarry onto a legal track. I think the agreement is good for both sides. The management’s opposition to signing goes to show that they are still stuck in their old illegal methods. They want to maintain the disorder, exploitation and humiliation. At the first negotiating session that I took part in, I told them that if they want we can reach an agreement in five minutes. Since then it’s been a year and a half, just because they never for a moment intended to sign.”

What have you learned from the strike?

“It has enabled me to get to know the workers and to know who my friends are. If you want to know a man, you have to test him in the hard moment. If I hear workers hesitating about the strike, I tell them that there’s no reason to regret our decision. The Arab saying goes, ‘When you’ve sold the camel, don’t fret about the reins.’

“On the other hand, the strike has brought us to a very hard pass. As long as the management refuses to sign, it’s impossible to know how things will develop. One thing is sure: we won’t return to work unless there’s a change in methods and in the way they’ve behaved toward us till now. Either there will be an agreement or no work will be done.

“I want to add one thing. Our strike isn’t just against the management of Salit. We want to give an example to workers in other places, here and abroad. There has to be an end to the unfairness and exploitation of workers by blood-sucking bosses. I have faith that Maan will stand at the head of this process and bring about a change that will empower workers everywhere.”

אודות Assaf Adiv