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2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Palestine

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 6 June 2012
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2012 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Palestine, 6 June 2012, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4fd8892f1e.html [accessed 2 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 4,039,000
Capital: (East Jerusalem)

ILO Core Conventions Ratified:

Not a member state

Reported Violations – 2012

Murders: 6
Injuries: 130

Documented violations – actual number of cases may be higher

Introduction

The exercise of freedom of association remains very difficult for most Palestinian workers, especially in Gaza. One trade union leader was sacked during 2011, while the executive of another replaced.

Background

The Palestinian Authority continues to face a financial crisis with massive rebuilding costs dating from the Israeli offensive against Hamas in 2008 and 2009. Although the economic situation in Gaza is improving, unemployment remains extremely high and is around 50% for young Palestinians. Strikes occurred throughout 2011, most notably from university staff over pay, teachers, coastguards, doctors and bank staff protesting arbitrary lay-offs.

In October, the Civil Servants Union announced a general strike of public sector employees to support Palestinian detainees on hunger strike in Israeli jails. Prisoners have refused food for 20 days to protest against conditions in Israeli jails, sparking rallies and sit-ins in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Israel and Hamas agreed a deal to exchange over 1,000 prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, recent estimates from the Palestinian Authority numbered the total Palestinian population in Israeli jails at 6,000.

The tension between Hamas and Fatah continued to increase the problems faced by ordinary people. Difficulties in bridging the rival political factions in Gaza and the West Bank between Hamas and the PLO including ministerial staffing existed throughout the year and complicated the running of both the West Bank and Gaza. The ongoing blockade of Gaza by Israel has added to the economic desperation of most Palestinians. In 2011, Israel increased the number of legal work permits for Palestinians to work in Israel but illegal workers still far outstrip legal. New sanctions were threatened by the Israeli Finance Minister over the Palestinian Authority's request for state recognition at the UN in September. Several high ranking officials resigned or were investigated over corruption allegations in 2011.

Palestine escaped the major protests erupting in the region in the spring. However, in May in anticipation of the Nakba Day on 15 May, which commemorated the 63rd anniversary of the Palestinian exodus, mass marches were planned throughout neighboring countries to Palestine to commemorate the exodus as well as to demand the right of return for all Palestinian refugees. On 15 May, Palestinians from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank attempted to reach and cross the Israeli border. All were stopped and in the clashes that ensued, around 12 were killed. Around 300 others were injured. On 5 June, scores of Syrian demonstrators were killed and over a hundred injured after attempting to enter the Israeli-held part of the Golan Heights. In the aftermath, thousands began a sit-in near the frontier resulting in Syrian security forces creating a security buffer zone to prevent more demonstrators from approaching the border. The Lebanese President accused Israel of genocide over the incident while the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the Israel Defence Forces' use of force against unarmed civilian protesters. Some accused the Syrian authorities of instigating the incident to deflect attention from criticism of the violent repression of internal protests.

Trade union rights in law

While basic trade union rights are guaranteed, gaps remain in the labour law. Palestinian workers, including public sector employees, may establish and join unions and engage in collective bargaining, although this is not yet enshrined in law. Palestinians working in Jerusalem are governed by Israeli labour law, and they are free to form and join unions.

While the right to strike is recognised, unions must give four week's advance notice for strikes in public utilities. Furthermore, the Ministry of Labour can impose arbitration, and trade unions can face disciplinary action if they do not accept the outcome of that arbitration. A new trade union law is being drafted and includes the institutional framework for industrial relations, although it has been criticised by the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

Link to additional detailed information regarding the legislation on the ITUC website here

In practice

Difficult exercise of trade union rights in Gaza: Due to the political strife in Gaza between Hamas and Fatah, with each side describing any union activity as politically-motivated, any normal daily exercise of freedom of association or collective bargaining is extremely difficult.

Discrimination hinders organising of women workers: Women workers receive some 60% of the wages of their male counterparts, and wages are the lowest in sectors that are predominantly female, such as agriculture and services. Security issues, legislative discrimination and cultural issues deter more women from entering the labour force. Women make up less than 15% of employees in the Palestinian labour market according to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), and most of them are unorganised.

Difficulties for Palestinians working in areas under Israeli labour laws:

A 2010 survey by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics found that unemployment stood at 17% in the West Bank compared with 38% in the Gaza Strip. Around a fifth of salaried workers still lived below the poverty line. They study also found that 65,000 Palestinians were working in Israel. Palestinians employed in Israel and in Israeli settlements accounted for 15% of salaried Palestinians in the West Bank. Some 35,000-50,000 Palestinians are believed to work in the settlements, many informally.

Israeli law has in theory applied equally to both Israeli and Palestinian workers in Israel since 2007. However, the law is often not enforced, is poorly monitored and in the event of abuse, it is very difficult for Palestinian workers to obtain redress and take a case to court. In many instances, employers continue to pay Palestinian workers less than the Israeli minimum wage, and they work in poor health and safety conditions. Increasingly, children are also found working in settlements, often in construction with poor safety conditions and no insurance.

Israel began transferring overdue pension payments to Gaza Strip residents who had worked in Israel before the blockade was imposed on the strip. According to the arrangement, money would be forwarded to the bank accounts of 92 beneficiaries in Gaza. Most of the beneficiaries used to work in Israeli hospitals and money had been deducted from their wages for their pension funds, as required by law.

In 2010, the Palestinian Authorities (PA) announced a ban prohibiting Palestinians from working in West Bank settlements as part of a wider campaign that included a national boycott of settlements. In addition to the poor conditions described above Palestinian workers in the settlements face harassment, racism and sometimes violence. However, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) stated that they would not stop workers from working in settlements until the PA could provide alternative employment. The ban was due to come into force in 2011 with announced penalties of up to five years in jail or a USD14,000 fine for anyone found working in Israeli settlements. It is not clear to what extent the PA will enforce the ban as Israel still has to lift restrictions on labour movement.

Palestinian workers under Israeli fire: In January 2011, Salama Isleem was wounded by Israeli fire while collecting gravel near the Israeli border. Several hundred Palestinians gather gravel from the rubble at the border but shootings at the workers have been taking place daily since Israel allocated a 300-metre-wide buffer zone along its borders with the Gaza Strip in February 2010. Despite the risks, workers collected gravel from the rubble of demolished buildings which were either destroyed by Israeli war jets in the past few years or used to be homes for Jewish settlers. Workers dig and sift the rubble to isolate the gravel which they then sell to local factories which need gravel because of a 2006 ban on the importation of raw construction materials into the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army had reportedly wounded about 130 gravel workers from the Gaza Strip since February, and killed six since March; most in their early twenties. Farmers who approach their farms close to the borders are also targeted.

Violations

Israeli-owned Quarry continues to ignore demands of Palestinian workers' union:

In June, Palestinian workers at the Salit Quarry near an Israeli settlement went on strike as part of a longstanding dispute. The workers demanded that management sign a collective agreement with them, raise their salaries, arrange their pension payments and stop withholding their wages. The Israeli-owned Salit quarry is considered a territory subject to Israeli law. It employs some 40 workers, all of them Palestinians from the territories. Most receive the Israeli minimum wage and say they have never been given a pay rise. About four years ago, the quarry workers established a committee, with the help of an advice centre in Israel, and began struggling to improve their working conditions. Upon starting the committee, the workers petitioned the Jerusalem Labor Court and asked to receive proper pay slips and have money transferred to the National Insurance Institute. The court then ordered the management to issue proper pay slips. However, management continued to withhold wages and is evading recognition of the worker's committee and a negotiated agreement that has taken two years to conclude.

The workers' actions are the first unionised workers' struggle of Palestinians confronting Israeli employers in the West Bank occupied territories, in the framework of an Israeli workers' organisation. The High Court of Justice has in the past recognised the right of Palestinians working in Israeli settlements to receive conditions according to Israeli law. However, the ruling has not yet been properly tested against a private company.

In September, after a three month strike the quarry owners claimed bankruptcy and the Jerusalem Regional Court appointed a trustee to manage the quarry. It is not known if the workers will receive compensation or be taken on by the new owners.

Journalists under attack and union offices targeted:

Reports stated that Gaza government police had detained journalists and then ordered them to sign a pledge to "abide by law, order and conventions" following their arrest at a January protest in support of the Egyptian rallies. Member of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate (PJS) General Secretariat Tahseen Al-Astal said the journalists and others who were detained refused to sign the paper, saying they had broken no laws, but added that the group was eventually compelled to sign a paper promising to abstain from taking part in unlicensed protests. Six journalists were also assaulted by Gaza government police.

In March, the authorities banned members of the PJS from traveling to and from Gaza. At least 20 journalists were attacked, beaten and had their documents confiscated as security forces targeted media for their coverage of a rally calling for unity between Hamas and the Fatah movement. Several media offices were also ransacked and the authorities imposed a ban on the PJS board members. The PJS organised a demonstration in the West Bank, to protest against the attacks on Gaza based journalists and the ban on its board members. The Hamas government in Gaza was also accused of systematic attacks on the media after dozens of journalists were subjected to assaults by Gaza security forces who also targeted media offices, including those of Reuters and other international media groups.

In October, the PJS reported that security forces escorted a group of Palestinian journalists to the union's offices, where they seized phones and ordered the staff out, claiming to be the new executive body of the syndicate. These journalists are said to have received support from the Journalists' Block, an organisation of media workers affiliated to the Hamas movement. However, the group has denied any involvement in the take-over but confirmed their support for the action against the PJS leadership.

In early December, five journalists were detained in Gaza. The government denied those detained were journalists and accused them instead of being "security agents" for the West Bank administration. Several were later released. Conflicts between journalists undermine principles agreed in a reconciliation deal between the Gaza and West Bank governments in May.

Union offices ransacked: In April, unknown assailants broke into the offices of the union of agricultural work committees in Ramallah at dawn, stealing servers and computers and ransacking files including the seizure of the union's private database.

Conflict and threats to workers at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [UNRWA] in Gaza:

Unrest continued throughout the year at the UNRWA in Gaza. Twenty-two warehouse workers began a hunger strike on 30 March, demanding better wages. An initial threat to strike saw wages raised USD55 per month, but the working week was extended from 37 hours to 42, and overtime wages were canceled, according to the spokesman. The 22 men were employed on five year contracts, without health insurance or safety protection. The vice-President of UNRWA Operations reportedly threatened to fire the strikers. The strike action was supported by the UNRWA Workers' Union. Two workers were reportedly fired.

In another dispute, the UNRWA union called for a series of agency wide strikes beginning on 13 April, in protest against unfair dismissals. Some 11,500 employees went on strike. In May a further strike was held over the dismissal of three workers. The Federation of Independent Trade Unions called for a campaign of solidarity with the UNRWA workers.

In September, workers staged a sit-in over the decision made to suspend the President of the UNRWA Staff Union, Suhail al-Hindi, for three months without pay on account of his trade union activities. In protest against the decision, the Union of Arab Employees at UNRWA held several work stoppages at schools in September and October.

Doctors ordered back to work: In April, the Supreme Court ordered striking Palestinian health workers back to work following a government petition. The workers had been on strike for several weeks. The statement called on the health minister to resolve the dispute between the union and the government. In June, the dispute escalated as the doctor's union threatened to submit mass resignations in response to a decision by the Palestinian government in Ramallah to refer the ongoing strike in the medical sector to court in order to halt the strike. Doctors began a further strike in August after authorities refused to sign wage related clauses in a collective agreement concerning wages. Palestinian Authority doctors also called for the dismissal of the health minister who they allege is destroying the public health system.

Palestinian workers on strike over pay:

At several points during the year, salaries were halved due to the ongoing financial crisis and lack of promised aid from donors. The Palestinian Authority (PA) civil servants union, angered at the cuts and lack of consultation, called on the government to limit the salary cuts made to universities, the electricity and water sectors and non-governmental schools. The teachers union, the union for public services employees, the union of health employees and the doctors union all signed a statement to this effect. The Palestinian Authority premier said that full salaries for the month of July would be paid, following strike threats from a union representing government employees. However doctors, hospital staff workers and charitable organisations from hospitals throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem went on strike in July after claiming they had not been paid in three months and called on the authorities to ensure payments were made to medical staff.

A later request that the Israeli authorities bring forward a regular payment of NIS 380 million in tax revenues so that the PA could pay salaries before the holiday of Id al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadam, was refused by the Israeli Finance Minister despite the agreement of other officials. After extra funding was received by donors, the PA announced salaries would be paid in full for August.

Public employees' union chief Bassem Zakarna accused PA officials of effective censorship by ordering the PA-run Palestine TV and Palestine Voice radio station to cancel planned interviews over a strike announced in June over wages.

Crackdown on trade unionists and activists: In November and December, many Palestinian trade unionists and youth activists were reportedly arrested from several refugee camps throughout Bethlehem, Nablus and the West Bank by Israeli military forces who entered Palestinian towns and refugee camps and rounded up multiple prisoners, particularly focusing on grassroots community organisers such as trade unionists and youth organisers. These Palestinian activists have been taken for interrogation and arbitrary detention. There are currently nearly 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners in occupation jails and the number is increasing rapidly despite a large scale prisoner exchange in October.

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