Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reports and Impressions from 2004 - The Trade Unions in Palestine

The circumstances of my first visit to Palestine/Israel in 2004 are described in the previous post.  For more on what was then called "The Jewish American Medical Project" (JAMP) and later The Health and Human Rights Project (HAHRP) see here.

What follows are a couple of reports I made then, principally focusing on the trade union movement and the work of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which was the Israeli partner of the project; in the West Bank, we worked with Palestinian Medical Relief Society.

2004 - JAMP Israel-Palestine Trip

Summary (Jeff Klein)
 Tuesday-Wednesday, 13-14 January – Ramallah:

The health care related members of the group departed for clinical visits in Nablus and Jenin;  Howard, Jan, Naomi and Jeff  had a series of meetings with representatives of the Palestinian workers’ movement and with human rights organizations concerned with the issues of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

The first meeting, on Tuesday morning, included representatives of the Palestinian General Confederation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) and staff of the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center (DWRC).

The PGFTU is the largest Labor organization and the “official” trade union movement in Palestine.  Present at the meeting were:

Mohammed Aruri, a member of the 8-member Executive Committee and assigned to the Legal Department;

Amna Mafarja/Rimawi, also on the PGFTU Executive Committee and Secretary of the Women’s Department;

Abdel Raheem Khateeb, member of the Secretariat of the Ramallah branch of the PGFTU and representative of the Hotel and Service Unions.

Later, we were also joined by

Hussein Tavil, who works in PGFTU media and propaganda and is also employed at HDIP.

Mohammed, a lawyer, has been active since the 1970’s in the PLO and was a Palestinian delegate to the Madrid Conference that preceded the Oslo accords in the early 1990’s;  Amna has also long been active in the PLO and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP);  Hussein comes out of the Construction Union and had once been an activist with the Communist Party.  All had been arrested and detained many times by the Israeli authorities.  Abdel Raheem, who is younger, lost his hotel job in Jerusalem due to the Israeli closures at the start of the current Intifadah.

The PGFTU is an affiliate of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU);  the US AFL-CIO also belongs to the ICFTU.

The PGFTU has approximately 270,000 members in the West Bank and Gaza, with 16 branches in all the major population centers, from Jenin to Rafah;  20,000 members belong to the Ramallah branch. The PGFTU leaders stated that more workers would like to join but Israeli closures and the “Apartheid Wall” have made movement difficult and paralyzed economic life in the occupied territories; Palestinian unemployment stands at more than 55% and over 70% of the population lives in poverty.

Unemployment in some border villages in the West Bank is even higher, since up to 90% of the workers used to be employed in Israel and have now lost their jobs;  there used to be more than 120,000 Palestinians workers in Israel, most of them technically “illegal” and without social benefits. Even today, desperate Palestinian workers risk their lives trying to cross into Israel for employment;  many have been killed or wounded at checkpoints or border crossings. The PGFTU leaders pointed out that even when Palestinians could work in Israel there was a kind of “apartheid” on the job in which Palestinians were paid less than the legal minimum wage and denied protections that were required under Israeli law. The PGFTU is involved in many legal cases in Israel, in collaboration with Israeli lawyers, to secure benefits owed to Palestinian workers, such as severance pay and insurance payments.

Recently the unions have paid emergency relief grants of $300 to unemployed families (made possible by funding from Arab countries in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority Finance Ministry), and delivered distributions of food made possible by the Saudi government and the Red Cross.  In addition, the Palestinian Authority has authorized a 3-month extension of health insurance for the unemployed.  Lately, the PGFTU has been negotiating with the PA to implement new Social Security legislation that was adopted during 2003.

The PGFTU representatives complained that the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut does little to address this situation, even failing to carry out agreements that were signed when Palestinians could legally work in Israel.  For example, Histadrut was supposed to cover the legal fees of Palestinian claimants appealing Israeli labor law violations and to forward part of the dues paid by Palestinian workers to the Israeli unions.  Since the Intifadah, relations between the PGFTU and Histadrut have been broken entirely.

Later that same day we visited the PGFTU’s somewhat impoverished offices in Ramallah and met the union’s General Secretary, Shaher Saa’d.  It was explained to us that the PGFTU (with funding from Norwegian unions) had constructed a new headquarters building in Nablus, the West Bank’s largest city, but the union offices were severely damaged (and eight staffers wounded) when Israeli armed forces bombed the center of town during an incursion in April 2002.  Under the subsequent curfew and occupation of Nablus, the PGFTU headquarters were invaded by Israeli troops, who stole or smashed all the office equipment, scattered the union’s files and left Hebrew graffiti on the walls:  “Be careful, we will be back soon,” and “We are the Power.” 

As a result, and considering that the on-going closures in Nablus made movement in and out nearly impossible, the PGFTU moved to temporary offices in Ramallah, with some new equipment purchased with aid from other unions and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

The PGFTU consists of 13 national unions, each with regional and local organizations, in sectors such as Hotel/Tourism, Hospital, Textile/Clothing and Construction.  In addition to a 30-member National Executive Committee (17 members from the West Bank, 13 from Gaza) there are also central departments, including Organization, Education, Legal, Women’s and Media/International.  Although the unions are not explicitly political, all secular parties or tendencies are represented in its leadership and among its members:  Fatah, Democratic Front, Popular Front, People’s Party (formerly the CP) and FIDU (Palestinian Democratic Union Struggle Front).  So far the Islamic Movement is not formally represented in the PGFTU, although there are a few nascent “Islamic” unions in Ramallah and Nablus, which are outside the Federation.

The roots of the Palestinian labor movement can be traced back to the British mandate period, when Jewish and Arab Communists established the first general trade unions in 1924, with membership open to all.  Sectoral unions in Construction and Printing were founded in 1944.  After the partition of Palestine in 1948-49, the Histadrut in Israel represented both Jewish and Israeli Palestinian workers (at least in theory).  The (Jordanian) General Federation of Trade Unions was established in 1965 in the West Bank;  and in Gaza, then under Egyptian administration, unions were organized independently.  After the Israeli conquest of the West Bank in 1967, the PGFTU was founded as an independent entity (in 1970), while the unions in Gaza remained separate until merged with the PGFTU in 1994 during the Oslo period.  Prior to that, the Palestinian trade unions  --  which were outlawed by the Israeli Occupation  --  operated clandestinely and the National Executive used to meet in Amman, Cairo or the Torino (Italy) center of the ILO.  Today, the Gaza branch of the PGFTU operates autonomously once again because communication with the West Bank has been made impossible by Israeli closures and travel restrictions.

The following Web sites have more information:

A US-Palestinian Labor Solidarity organization was founded recently as an outcome of the tours of Palestinian Labor Representatives in the US during 2002 and 2003:

The Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center (DWRC) is an NGO concerned with workers’ legal and union rights; among other functions it advocates greater democratization within Palestinian society and in the unions.  The organization receives funding principally from European foundations, but is also supported by the Boston-based Grassroots International.

On Tuesday morning the DWRC was represented by

Carine Metz Abu Hmeid (a French woman married to a Palestinian), whose background is in international law and legal rights; and

Abeer sous Abumadi, in charge of the DWRC program in occupational health and safety.

(Hasan Barghouthi, the DWRC General Director, was out of town attending the World Social Forum at Mumbai, India;  Barghouthi has visited and spoken in Boston under the sponsorship of Grassroots International)

The DWRC has branches in Jenin and Gaza as well as its main office in Ramallah.  The organization helps Palestinian workers to sue for their legal rights in Israeli courts, a daunting challange given the usually high cost of lawyers and the difficulty for plaintiffs to appear in Israel given closures and travel restrictions. 

The DWRC and the PGFTU work together on labor issues before the courts and on matters such as social security rights. However, the DWRC is critical of the PGFTU for what it contends is a lack of internal democracy and too close ties to political parties and the PA.  (See more on this below.)

 On Wednesday afternoon we visited the DWRC main office in Ramallah, where a presentation on the work of the organization was made by staff people we had met earlier, together with lawyer Samar Amad of the DWRC legal department, and Mahmoud Ziadeh, who heads the “Workers’ Freedom of Association and Organizing Unit.  As was the case with many Palestinian organizations, the DWRC offices were severely damaged during the IDF incursions of April 2002, when Israeli troops broke in the building, destroyed or stole furniture and office equipment and general trashed the facilities.

 The DWRC was founded in 1993 after the start of the Oslo process by a volunteer group of academics, lawyers and trade unionists.  Its goal is “A Palestinian society where peace and democracy, human rights, fundamental liberties and social justice are the highest values in its political and social principles.”  The main target groups of the organization are stated to be “workers and employees in the public and private sectors” and “socially marginalized groups,” for example, women and children in Palestinian society.  The DWRC works to reinforce democracy and enhance civil society through organizing, legal and humanitarian aid, training, research and publications, lobbying, as well as directly addressing issues of unemployment and poverty. 

DWRC situates its work within the wider context of fighting “the negative consequences of globalization and the trade agreements on the comprehensive development process in our countries, human rights and fundamental liberties.”  General Director Hasan Barghouthi has participated in world anti-globalization forums in Italy, Brazil and India.  DWRC is a member of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA), the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR-Net), the Arab Network for NGOs and the Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO).  Recently the DWRC was instrumental in helping to found a new Arab Federation for Democracy and Workers’ Education Associations (AFDWEA), which held its first conference in Cairo during December 2003.

(For more information, see

 Mahmoud Ziadeh made a lengthy presentation on the work of the DWRC with trade unionists and its relationship with the PGFTU.  Mahmoud’s personally history is worth summarizing:  He was active in various capacities with the Palestinian labor movement and the PGFTU since 1978; he once headed the Construction and Public Services Union in Hebron (1981) and was later Vice-President of the Hotel Workers of Jerusalem and President of three different union federations;  he spent about 10 years in Israeli jails (and, as he recounted during the Tuesday meeting of prisoners’ support organizations, his son is now held on a 30-year sentence in Israeli prison without the right to have visits from his family).  Mahmoud says he eventually left the PGFTU in a dispute over its lack of internal elections.  He has worked for the DWRC since 2002.

During Mahmoud’s talk the discussion was joined by a number of workers who were rank-and-file supporters of DWRC and union activists:

Munir Barghouthi, president of the workers’ committee at Bir Zeit Pharmaceuticals;

Sayel Mehat and Warda Al-Arouri (the only female worker at the meeting) of the Ramallah branch of the National Union of Telcom and Postal Workers

Ramsi Shaheen, private school teacher;

Munir Kazaz, professor of Neuro-Science at Bir Zeit University and a member of the University staff union;

Majid Kilani, an electrical engineer who works for the Ramallah municipality.

Mahmoud was critical of the PGFTU’s coziness with the PA and characterized the recently proposed draft labor law as “violating international principles of free association.”  According to Mahmoud, the law would restrict the right of workers to decide what unions or what types of union to join by presenting a common “structure” of union organization that would tend to empower top-down decision making.  He also charged that certain government-financed social security or health insurance benefits would be offered only to PGFTU members.

Criticisms of the established unions or the PA were voiced by the other participants in the discussion.  In general, the workers charged the existing unions with often being unresponsive to the rank and file, undemocratic, ineffective, and bureaucratic  --  and being effectively management or government dominated.

[It was impossible to judge the validity of these criticisms, or to know how widespread the alleged problems may be. But such issues are common to all trade union movements, including certainly in the US.  In my experience, there is often a tension between the immediate desires of the rank-and-file membership and the union leadership even in the most democratic unions. Charges of bureaucratism, corruption and lack of responsiveness to the base are also widespread in many labor organizations, even when they may be providing members with good representation overall.  It would be surprising not to encounter such issues in Palestinian unions. Some of these problems or contradictions are often more acute in countries or movements with a relatively large state sector or close relationships with government or political parties. On the other hand, “politicization” of unions is not exactly alien to our experience in the Massachusetts or the US as a whole, particularly among unions representing large numbers of public workers!  (JK)]

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