Since the start of last April, Israeli colonial authorities have been clamping down on Palestinian workers and the Palestinian people of the West Bank. This is exacerbated for Palestinian workers who work for Israeli corporations without permits. Lately, there has been an Israeli crackdown and blockade on the ‘open part’ of the Separation wall, which for years has been the route for tens of thousands of Palestinian workers who -despite being denied the Israeli permit – still crossed the border to go to work and access their main source of income. The need for Palestinian workers to cross the ‘border’ is a direct consequence of Israel’s systematic strangulation of the Palestinian economy and this crackdown on ‘illegal workers’ embodies yet another layer of systemic oppression on Palestinians who were forcibly made reliant on Israeli jobs.
Intensification of violence and intimidation
Even when Palestinian workers are able to access their workplace, they are being increasingly subjected to violence and discrimination.
On April 12 2022, 37- year-old Abdallah Srour from Hebron was killed by Israeli police at his workplace in construction in the city of Ashkelon. Abdallah was one of over 27 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers in less than a month. My father, who works in Israel, told me that he and his fellow Palestinian workers are feeling increasingly unsafe in the workplace and in public spaces. This is especially true when they use public transport to move from one place to another, as they are frequently verbally -and sometimes physically- assaulted by certain Israeli passengers .
Closure of Jenin
The district of Jenin in particular has been bearing the brunt of Israel’s collective punishment measures. The city of Jenin has been under an economic siege and Israel has intensified its restrictions on workers from Jenin as showcased by the increase in the number of military checkpoints. Al-Jamala checkpoint was closed in order to block the access of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the city and the flow of Jenin inhabitants to Israel.
Israel is scapegoating Jenin, a main stronghold of resistance in the West Bank, and is collectively punishing workers as well as their families in order to maintain the image it’s constructed of itself as an insurmountable power. Israel needs to engrave this image in our mind to obliterate the spirit of resistance. In turn this serves Israel’s settler colonial project which consists in taking over our land whilst ignoring our existence.
Israel’s permit system – a tool of oppression
Israel’s permit system has been a primary tool used to subject Palestinian workers and the Palestinian population at large. There are two kinds of permits that Palestinian workers have to obtain in order to get to work.
- The permits of Palestinians who work in Israel are issued by the Israeli labor office. These permits are usually issued through the approval of the Israeli employers who employ the Palestinian workers. Israeli employers or companies pay an amount of money to the labor office issuing permits on behalf of the Palestinian workers, which is deducted from their salaries. Yet, in practice, Israeli employers always avoid their legal commitments in terms of the rights that should be given to Palestinian workers. They ask Palestinians to find a permit through an illegal network of Palestinian and Israeli network of brokers. These brokers force Palestinian workers to pay a huge amount of money in order to get a permit. Each Palestinian worker who deals with brokers has to pay between 1800- 2000 Israeli shekels per month to buy a permit, which equals between 500-580 USD per month.
- Palestinians who work in illegal settlements in the West Bank are issued another type of permits by the Israeli Civil Administration, which needs to be approved by the Shin Bet, Israel’s intelligence organization.
More than a half of the Palestinian workers, who work in Israel or in illegal settlements, are denied a work permit. As mentioned in the ILO report, in 2021, some 30,000 to 40,000 Palestinians worked in the country without a permit.
This forces them into illegal and potentially dangerous work. This also entails that those with working permits have very little agency and cannot require basic labor rights as they are under the constant threat of getting their work permit. Indeed, a working permit can be annulled at any time, especially when workers demand their rights, try to unionize, or if they (or one of their family members) engage in any kind of political activity. Those who don’t have permits are in an even more precarious situation as they can easily be fired if they dare to protest their employers’ exploitative practices. Because they are considered illegal workers who enter Israel through illegal routes -the open parts of the Wall- they have no security whatsoever and are at the mercy of their employer’s discretionary whims. In practice, the working permit system forces Palestinian workers to live in an Orwellian world of surveillance, subjugation and capitulation.
In October 2007, eighty Palestinian workers in Seoul Orr went on an open strike. Seoul Orr is one of the seven factories located in the industrial zone of Nitzani Shalom illegal settlement that was built on land confiscated to Palestinian families of Tulkarem. The factory recycled household natural gas cylinders, and manufactures bromine gas for land sterilization. The workers went on strike to protest dangerous working conditions and violation of labour rights (lack of protection materials and measures, prolonged and underpaid working hours). Seoul Orr was described by Israeli media as a slave market, where workers were even denied access to the toilet because there was not any. Five Palestinians died due to the dire working conditions in that factory.
The strike lasted 8 months. During that period workers didn’t receive any salary. They were supported in their struggle by the Food Industries and Agriculture union in Tulkarem and grassroots activists. One of them, Mohammed Blaidi – now the general coordinator of the New Unions – received threats from officials in the Israeli intelligence to halt the strike. Despite this, the workers continued their struggle until the factory became bankrupt and closed in 2010.
Demands of Palestinian workers were transferred to the office of national insurance. As a result they received 5 million Shekels as compensation. Following the change of management, the workers in Seoul Orr now work for 8 hours per day and are paid according to Israeli law. They also have paid sick leaves and holidays and are provided with the protection measures they need. Seoul Orr became the only factory that made a pension fund of 750 shekels/month for its workers.
After this victory, grassroots activists who led the strike decided to create the Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions. The goal of New Unions work (which is mainly voluntary) is not just to improve the workers’ working conditions, but also to make them break free from the shackles of intimidation and capitulation.
Since its creation, the New Unions has drawn on the connection between the ruthless exploitation of workers by Israeli employers and Israel’s three-tiered system of oppression: settler colonialism, apartheid and military occupation. We continue to organize and unionize workers to acquire their rights while emphasizing that our struggle is not just a class struggle but an anti-colonial one. This is the role that trade unionization in Palestine must play and has historically played since the British colonial rule and creation of Israel.
The New Unions organizes Palestinian workers (both formal and informal) working for Palestinian employers, as well as in Israeli corporations on both sides of the Green Line. Due to the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the isolation of Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, the New Unions are unable to unionize workers in these two areas.
There are a number of challenges facing the unionization of Palestinian workers in Israeli corporations. One of them are Israeli restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, which mean that members of the New Unions can’t access Israeli corporations where workers work, either in illegal settlements in the West Bank or in Israel. This makes it more difficult to find out more about the challenges the workers face, as well as to communicate with them. Yet, since it was created, the New Unions has been able to organize 15 000 Palestinian workers in both Israeli and Palestinian-operated corporations. Members of the New Unions meet workers at Israeli military checkpoints, which they cross daily to get to work in Israeli corporations.
Trade unions across the world can play a key role to support the struggle of workers in particular and the Palestinian people at large by:
- Opening up more spaces for Palestinian trade unions, especially progressive ones like the New Unions, to highlight Palestinian workers’ struggle and the challenges they face.
- Adopting the BDS call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on apartheid Israel; this includes supporting BDS campaigns against Israeli transnational corporations, boycotting Israeli products exported to the rest of the world, and pressuring international companies from operating in the OPT and inside Israel.
- Adopting the apartheid analysis and joining in the increasing number of voices calling on the UN to investigate Israeli apartheid to activate the UN apartheid convention, impose targeted sanctions and a military embargo on Israel.
- Cutting all ties with the Histadrut, Israel’s major trade union using discrimination practices against Palestinian workers forced to work in Israel and illegal settlements.
Manal Shqair, The Palestine New Federation of Trade Unions